Bird Fact Friday — Flamingos

Adapted from page 116 of Birds of Chile:

Flamingos are unmistakable, social wading birds. They are often associated with hot climates, but 3 species breed in the North Andes, where lakes often freeze at night. Juveniles are typically dirty whitish and brownish, with dark streaking. 1st-years are whitish overall with little pink, but attain fully pink adult plumage in 2–3 years. Within mixed-species flocks, each species tends to group together. They nest colonially in remote areas, building raised mud cup nests on ground.

An adult Chilean flamingo.

More specifically, the Chilean Flamingo is widespread throughout the country, but fairly common in the North Andes, south of Atacama. They wade in shallow, saline lakes, with non-breeders also at fresh lakes, sheltered inshore waters. Their calls suggest geese, and is made while in flight,  sounding like a honking 3-syllable ah ah-ah. The first note is quieter, last note more emphatic. Feeding birds typically give quieter bleating and honking calls. While immature Chilean flamingos soon develop pale eyes, adults are distinctive: they are pale pink with reddish-pink bustle, have red ‘knees’ on grayish legs, and pale eyes. First years are appreciably smaller than adults. 

To see what an juvenile flamingo looks like, head to our Instagram.

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

The Dog Days of Summer: How Dogs Develop

All summer long, Princeton Nature wants to celebrate man’s best friend. With our new blog series, we’ll be sharing some of the most interesting facts about dogs, as found in Ádám Miklósi’s The Dog: A Natural History.

Adapted from pages 84-85 of the text:

Dog puppies are born blind and deaf; they are not able to walk, can barely crawl, and do not survive without their mother’s care. In the subsequent weeks and months, they grow rapidly in size and develop the abilities and skills they need as adults. The size of newborn puppies differs depending on the size of the breed, so the duration of the physical development of dog puppies varies greatly, depending on the size the dog reaches as an adult. For very small dogs it may take approximately 6 months to reach their adult size, while for giant breeds it may take 18 months. There are also differences in the timing of development between breeds, with some skills and behaviors emerging much sooner in some breeds than in others.

A corgi and pups cuddling. Photo credit: Grigorita Ko, Shutterstock

From birth to death canines undergo a series of changes in their physical, ecological, and social environment. For example, a few weeks after birth, from the safety of the small and confined space of the litter, puppies are gradually exposed to richer and more stimulating surroundings. Puppies learn to recognize individuals, to form affiliative relationships with some, and to avoid others. Dogs’ social environment is particularly rich and complex because it includes not only conspecifics but also members of another species: humans.

It is well known that early experiences can greatly affect the later behavior of dogs. In some early experiments researchers deprived dog puppies at various ages of human contact. Dogs that had never experienced humans during their early development showed marked avoidance toward them, and this behavior could not be alleviated by subsequent socialization. This explains why many feral dogs that do not spend time with humans as puppies keep avoiding people later in life. However, dogs are special because even a very little social exposure, up to a few hours per day, may develop their preference for humans.

During sensitive periods the puppy is exceptionally quick to learn about particular stimuli in its environment. The experience gained during this period is thought to have a great impact on future behavior. If the dog misses specific inputs, it may develop behavior malformations. Lack of experience with other dogs may lead to inappropriate behavior, including fear or aggression when encountering a conspecific.

The Dog: A Natural History
By Ádám Miklósi

As one of the oldest domesticated species, selectively bred over millennia to possess specific behaviors and physical characteristics, the dog enjoys a unique relationship with humans. More than any other animal, dogs are attuned to human behavior and emotions, and accordingly play a range of roles in society, from police and military work to sensory and emotional support. Selective breeding has led to the development of more than three hundred breeds that, despite vast differences, still belong to a single species, Canis familiaris.

The Dog is an accessible, richly illustrated, and comprehensive introduction to the fascinating natural history and scientific understanding of this beloved species. Ádám Miklósi, a leading authority on dogs, provides an appealing overview of dogs’ evolution and ecology; anatomy and biology; behavior and society; sensing, thinking, and personality; and connections to humans.

Illustrated with some 250 color photographs, The Dog begins with an introductory overview followed by an exploration of the dog’s prehistoric origins, including current research about where and when canine domestication first began. The book proceeds to examine dogs’ biology and behavior, paying particular attention to the physiological and psychological aspects of the ways dogs see, hear, and smell, and how they communicate with other dogs and with humans. The book also describes how dogs learn about their physical and social environments and the ways they form attachments to humans. The book ends with a section showcasing a select number of dog breeds to illustrate their amazing physical variety.

Beautifully designed and filled with surprising facts and insights, this book will delight anyone who loves dogs and wants to understand them better.

 

Bird Fact Friday — The Owls of Chile

Adapted from pages 142-143 of Birds of Chile:

The Magellanic (Lesser) Horned Owl is a very large owl with barred underparts; there are no similar species to it in Chile. They are widespread and common throughout virtually all of Chile, from the Patagonian steppe to city parks. They are mainly nocturnal, but in Patagonia can be seen in daytime, as on roadside fence posts. Their songs are two deep hoots, followed by, or run into, a quavering purr (hoo-hoo’urr-rr-rr). But, at a distance, only the hoo-hoo is audible. 

Meanwhile, the Rufous-legged Owl is mainly found in central or southern Chile, typically seen in old growth forests. They hunt at clearings and edges from low to mid-level perches, making roots and calls mainly at upper-to-mid levels. Its song is a varied series of pulsating barks run into low hoots, intensifying and then fading abruptly. These calls have a slightly maniacal quality; they’re a short series of resonant hoots (wuh-wuh wuh-wuh) followed by a rasping shriek. They are distinctive due to their rounded head, dark eyes, and voice.

A perched Magellanic Horned Owl.

The Peruvian (Pacific) Pygmy-Owl is the only pygmy-owl in northern Chile. These owls live on oasis valleys and farmland, in villages, and usually with some taller trees. They hunt from perches, low to high, including roadside wires, but are often mobbed noisily by smaller birds. They fly fast and are slightly undulating. Their song is a rapid tooting noise, almost too fast to whistle, with 10 notes/1.6-2.2 seconds (huihuihui). Their call is a high, chipping twitter. Their plumage is gray to brown overall.

Finally, the Austral Pygmy-Owl is native to central and southern Chile, commonly seen in the Tierra del Fuego, but some withdraw to the north and downslope in winter. These birds live in the woodland and forest, but can be seen in town parks, farmland, and semi-open country (at least in winter). Behaviorally, they are very similar to the Peruvian Pygmy-Owl. Their songs are fairly rapid, ringing toots, easily whistled at 10 notes/2.4-2.8 seconds, often with occasional changes in pitch and tempo (whih’whih’whih…). Their calls are high, chipping twitters. Their plumage is typically brown to rusty brown. 

To see photos of all these owls, head to our Instagram.

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

 

Amazing Arachnids: Jumping Spiders

Adapted from pages 236-247 of Amazing Arachnids:

Jumping spiders have so many pleasing qualities that it would be difficult to decide what is most admirable about these delightful little creatures. Shimmering iridescence and rich, velvety colors equal the beauty of birds and butterflies. Their fearless capture of prey and their acrobatic leaps surprise and astonish us. Their complex courtship song and dance pique our curiosity. But perhaps the most endearing aspect of jumping spiders is their enormous, forward-facing eyes, gazing at us with every appearance of intelligence and inquisitiveness.

These large, forward-facing eyes, called anterior median eyes, are indeed the key characteristic of this diurnal hunter. Jumping spiders locate their prey visually, stalking and pouncing on it like tiny cats. Unlike vertebrate systems in which one pair of eyes handles depth perception, motion detection, and detail resolution, the spider’s 4 pairs of eyes divide these tasks. Collectively, their 8 eyes create a visual system that rivals any other arthropod’s vision.

Habronattus hallani male. This species of
Habronattus is found throughout a large part of the western United States and into Mexico. It is also primarily a ground hunter.

The force of the grip is due to physical adhesion, not to suction cups or electrostatic forces. If two glass slides are overlapped with a thin film of water between them, they are difficult to pull apart because of the capillary force of the water. The scopula hairs of the spider utilize these extremely strong capillary forces. Apparently the water available in the atmosphere and on surfaces provides the necessary thin film for the end feet to grip the surface. This explains why spiders with scopula hairs can walk sure-footedly on vertical surfaces and upside down, even on glass surfaces. In jumping spiders, the tips of the tarsi (feet) have such dense claw tufts of scopula hairs that they appear to have fuzzy “toes.”

Jumping spiders make up the most diverse family of arachnids in the world, with approximately 6,000 species described so far. As one might expect with such diversity, some jumping spiders have evolved behaviors that fill extremely specialized niches. One jumping spider in Africa, Evarcha culicivora, prefers to feed on bloodfilled female mosquitoes, especially mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles, famous for spreading malaria. Another salticid, Phyaces comosus from the bamboo areas of Sri Lanka, specializes in predating the eggs and hatchlings of other jumping spiders. It is so tiny and so closely resembles a bit of dirt or debris that it can sneak into the nest of another jumping spider undetected. Yet another species, Bagheera kiplingi from Central America, has a primarily vegetarian diet—unique in the spider world. It lives in acacia trees that produce little nubbins of protein and fat from their leaf tips, as well as nectar from the base of the leaves. These provide food for the ants that in return guard the tree from caterpillars and other herbivores. The jumping spider steals the nubbins and nectar despite the ant patrols, living almost entirely on this vegetable source of protein.

In conclusion, jumping spiders rival any other group of creatures for their beauty, diversity, and complex behaviors. A combination of natural selection with sexual selection has produced an array of stunningly beautiful and surprisingly intelligent predators. The world is a richer place thanks to these diminutive gems.

Amazing Arachnids
By Jillian Cowles

The American Southwest is home to an extraordinary diversity of arachnids, from spitting spiders that squirt silk over their prey to scorpions that court one another with kissing and dancing. Amazing Arachnids presents these enigmatic creatures as you have never seen them before. Featuring a wealth of color photos of more than 300 different kinds of arachnids from eleven taxonomic orders–both rare and common species—this stunningly illustrated book reveals the secret lives of arachnids in breathtaking detail, including never-before-seen images of their underground behavior.

Amazing Arachnids covers all aspects of arachnid biology, such as anatomy, sociality, mimicry, camouflage, and venoms. You will meet bolas spiders that lure their victims with fake moth pheromones, fishing spiders that woo their mates with silk-wrapped gifts, chivalrous cellar spiders, tiny mites, and massive tarantulas, as well as many others. Along the way, you will learn why arachnids are living fossils in some respects and nimble opportunists in others, and how natural selection has perfected their sensory structures, defense mechanisms, reproductive strategies, and hunting methods.

  • Covers more than 300 different kinds of arachnids, including ones new to science
  • Features more than 750 stunning color photos
  • Describes every aspect of arachnid biology, from physiology to biogeography
  • Illustrates courtship and mating, birth, maternal care, hunting, and defense
  • Includes first-ever photos of the underground lives of schizomids and vinegaroons
  • Provides the first organized guide to macroscopic mites, including photos of living mites for easy reference

Katrina van Grouw: Flight of the Peacocks

A peacock’s train is not its tail! You can see its real tail, lying flat against the magnificent fan-shaped train when it’s fully spread.

There’s something missing from my living room.

I know there’s something missing because there’s over a square yard of bookcase visible that I haven’t seen for years, revealing a lot of books I’d forgotten I own. The obscuring object, shrouded in cloth wraps, has now gone, and my books have re-materialised as from behind a stage curtain.  It’s a small step back towards normality after the domestic chaos that came with The Unfeathered Bird (and became even worse with Unnatural Selection).

Although the house is, and will probably always be, full of skeletons, saying farewell to the two enormous paintings—the diptych— that was created for the jacket illustrations of The Unfeathered Bird is at least a step in the right direction. As I write, the paintings are somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean on a one-way trip to America. Their final destination: the offices of Princeton University Press, New Jersey, where they belong.

If you’re not already familiar with the book, the paintings are of a peacock; front and back view. It’s an unfeathered—well, partly unfeathered peacock. One of the most frequently-repeated untruths about birds is that a peacock’s splendid fan-shaped train, bedecked with glittering iridescent “eyes”, is its tail. It’s not. Its elongated feathers actually originate from the lower back and rump. A peacock’s tail feathers are actually very plain things, just long grey-brown feathers that you can see lying close to the back of the train when it’s fully spread. For this reason I chose to leave the train and tail feathers onthe otherwise naked skeleton.

The idea came from a specimen in the collections at Naturalis, the Natural History Museum of the Netherlands in Leiden, where Husband was formerly curator in charge of birds and mammals. It was one of a set of now rather old and tatty skeletal preparations that included some feathers left in place. This particular specimen happened to be a white peafowl, which I decided would be a good idea so as not to detract from the limited palette used in the book.

Although the Leiden specimen provided the inspiration for the paintings, its posture, like that of so many historical museum specimens, wasn’t sufficiently accurate for my needs. For that we had to prepare a fresh specimen of our own. By pure co-incidence a taxidermist friend of Husband’s, a man named Bas, had recently acquired a dead peafowl that was surplus to requirements. The story’s quite an amusing one and is worth telling:

Bas was contacted one day by a farmer asking the price of having a dead pheasant mounted. He quibbled over the price but reluctantly agreed; only to turn up not with a pheasant but with a fully-grown peacock. Any taxidermist will tell you that peafowl are a lot more difficult to prepare than pheasants. Bas quite correctly pointed out that peafowl and pheasants were not the same price, at which the irate farmer (equally correctly) pointed out that peafowl are members of the pheasant family. The two scowled at one another for a matter of minutes before the farmer, accepting defeat, flung the dead bird at Bas and stormed off, never to return!

Husband prepared its skeleton in the required posture from knowledge gained during a lifetime of studying living birds. Like virtually all the skeletons in both my books, it was boiled down on the kitchen stove, bleached and dried on the draining board, and re-assembled on the dining table. This was also the skeleton that I used for the peacock illustration in side view, inside the book. For several months the two paintings, along with a very large easel, and the skeleton, formed a little enclave; a little ‘world of peacocks,’ circling the window, as I worked on them simultaneously; blocking out the light, filling the house with the smell of paint, and allowing peacocks to dominate the living room for the first time.

Inspired in my formative years by John James Audubon’s colossal Birds of America I have the ridiculous habit of producing all my artworks life-sized (I’ve only recently grown out of this since I’ve been producing illustrations of cattle and horses). All the skeletons in The Unfeathered Bird—the storks, pelicans, swans; even the ostrich body— were drawn to this scale, which entailed wrestling with easels in spaces barely big enough for even the cat to squeeze past, and all of the pictures have had to be stored somewhere in our very, very tiny house.

The skeleton used in side view in the book doubled up as the model for the cover paintings.

While peacock skeletons may not be that big, with the feathers on and shown life-sized, they’re enormous; too big by far to hang on the walls at home, or even to take upstairs to be stored. So apart from a few outings to be hung on exhibition, they’ve been blocking access to my living room bookshelves since 2011.

The paintings were done in acrylic, with paler layers underneath the darker brown surface. I worked in pencil on top of that, and scraped away the top layer of paint for some of the highlights on the bones, and added deeper shadows in acrylic. So if you look at them closely you can see pencil lines as well as painted areas.

On the ground, at the bird’s feet is a cast feather—a homage to the 17thCentury Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter whose splendidly animated scenes of poultry, waterfowl and exotic birds were always marked by his motif of a floating feather. I put these feathers on the inside flaps of the jacket, too.

I painted the entire bird almost to the tips of its spread train, but in the end chose to crop the digitized versions significantly for the book jacket, so as not to lose the details of the skeleton. I came frighteningly close to cropping the actual paintings—cropping with a saw, I mean—too, when I was faced with the problem of transporting them to exhibitions. Thankfully I decided not to.

The paintings’ first trip was to the picture framers’ and it was very nearly disastrous. Artists have a tendency to work on borrowed time and when it came to exhibitions I was no different. I had the diptych submitted for its first exhibition almost before it was finished and rushed the paintings to the framers thoroughly encapsulated in bubble-wrap without realizing that the varnish wasn’t fully dry. I peeled off the packaging to find a pattern of circular marks all over the surface, like a magnified newspaper photo.

You know how sometimes when things are truly calamitous you just stay unnaturally calm and collected, while you might over-react at a lesser accident? Well, this was one of those moments. The framer repeated in awe how he wouldn’t have been so cool in the same circumstances, as he scurried about the workshop finding rags to soak in turpentine. Amazingly with solvents, a hairdryer, and a lotof patience we managed to restore the surface to its desired finish. 

The first aid accomplished, we set ourselves to choosing a frame. I’m usually a person who knows exactly what I want when I go to a picture framers’, but this diptych was unlike anything I’d done before. Grinning, the framer disappeared into a back room. “I always knew the right picture for this would show up sooner or later” he called above the grating of heavy objects being moved around. “You’ll either love this, or hate it.” He emerged some minutes later with a splendidly extravagant white baroque moulding, several inches thick. I loved it.

Diptych on display. The peacocks were exhibited publicly several times and looked stunning wherever they went. Here they’re at an exhibition of artworks from The Unfeathered Bird.

The paintings’ public debut was at the prestigious Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London. After that it was the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition at the same gallery. Then a series of solo exhibitions: at the Natural History Museum at Tring, Nature in Art, and my local museum in Buckinghamshire. They looked spectacular every time.

I had various offers of private sales, including one from a wealthy art collector in Florence, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted by the money and by the space to be regained in my living room. But it simply didn’t feel right to separate them from the context they were created in. As paintings they’re not, in fact, the best things I’ve ever done. But they’re the cover of The Unfeathered Bird—the book that dominated and changed the course of my adult life—and, for me, that makes them very special indeed.

In the idyllic world of daydreams there is a Katrina van Grouw Museum, established to preserve for posterity all the artworks from the books along with the skeletons and other specimens that were prepared exclusively for them. In that world, the peacock diptych hangs on the far wall to greet awestruck fans as they enter. “Are those the cover pictures?” they’ll whisper, “They’re so much larger than I thought they’d be”. “I can’t believe I’m finally seeing the real thing.

Sadly that world doesn’t exist and probably never will. But there was another option…

I am blessed with having a truly excellent publisher. No, I’m not just saying that because I’m writing this blog post for them. Princeton University Press has been marvellous. They’ve given me free rein to produce the books I want, trusted my every decision, and rooted for me every step of the way. They’ve shown endless patience, wild enthusiasm, and heart-warming kindness.  For a long time I wondered how I could possibly thank everyone. I could send flowers – or give some prints to individuals. But the more people I worked with, the more it seemed the entire staff was on my side. There would be bound to be someone I’d miss, and there are probably people who’ve worked on my books whose name I don’t even know.

Then it struck me that I could thank everyone, every single day, by sending my peacocks to Princeton where they’d be permanently associated with me and my books, and a permanent message of thanks to everyone who works there. Not just as a message to those directly involved, but as a symbol of generic appreciation from an author to a publisher.

Authors can be a bit surly on occasion. We work alone for years nurturing our ideas into tangible form and, at the end of it, when we’d guard our creations with our very life, we’re thrust into a team-work situation with our precious books in the middle. Perhaps unsurprisingly we can come across as rather defensive; resentful even, so I can imagine that working for a publishing company must sometimes seem a thankless task.

My peacocks are there to say that it’s not a thankless task.

If you work for Princeton University Press I hope that, as you walk past the two paintings in the foyer—and especially if you might not be having the best of days—you’ll look up at them and know that an author is grateful.

I, meanwhile—well I’ll be happily re-acquainting myself with all those books I’d forgotten I own…

 

Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird and Unnatural Selection, inhabits that no-man’s-land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.

Unnatural Selection is a stunningly illustrated book about selective breeding–the ongoing transformation of animals at the hand of man. More important, it’s a book about selective breeding on a far, far grander scale—a scale that encompasses all life on Earth. We’d call it evolution.

Suitable for the lay reader and student, as well as the more seasoned biologist, and featuring more than four hundred breathtaking illustrations of living animals, skeletons, and historical specimens, Unnatural Selection will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in natural history and the history of evolutionary thinking.

Bird Fact Friday — Hummingbirds

Adapted from pages 158-159 of Birds of Chile:

The Oasis Hummingbird is identifiable by its distinctive small hummer, long, slightly arched bill, and rusty rump. Males have long forked tail, and a messy gorget. These hummingbirds are found in North Chile, mainly in oasis valleys. They are also vagrant south of Santiago. While these birds can often be spotted perched on phone wires, they can also be seen in gardens, desert scrubs, and orchards. They are larger than most hummingbirds. Their call sounds like a tickling chip, that’s somewhat lower and harder than other hummingbirds. 

A male Oasis Hummingbird (Rhodopis vesper).

 

An adult Sparkling Violet-ear (Colibri coruscans).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, the Sparkling Violet-ear is a rather large and green hummingbird, with no similar species in Chile. Immature birds are duller with reduced violet heads, while adults can be identified by their broad, dark tail band. These birds are frequently seen North of the Andes, but are scarce in Arica. They are typically seen near agricultural areas with flowering Eucalyptus and gardens. Their songs, which they sing from mid-upper level perches, are metallic, rhythmic chirping (tchi-chin tchi-chin) which is repeated tirelessly. Their sexes are indistinguishable. 

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

 

Amazing Arachnids: The Lace-Weaver Spiders

Amazing Arachnids is a new, month-long series from Princeton Nature. Each week, we’ll highlight one of the unique arachnids found in Jillian Cowles’ richly illustrated and up-close look at the secret lives of spiders.

Adapted from page 229 of the text: 

Broad, black chelicerae and a stocky build give members of the family Amaurobiidae a powerful appearance suggestive of bulldogs. The imposing physique of these spiders contrasts with the delicate beauty of their webs, built of woolly cribellate silk. These characteristic webs give this family its name “lace-weaver spiders” or “hacklemesh weavers.” The cribellate silk of the web radiates out from a tunnel retreat, where the spider lies in wait. Insects become tangled in these hackled threads, giving time for the spider to rush out from its hiding place and catch the prey.

Amaurobius has a truly remarkable natural history in regard to its reproduction. In the case of Amaurobius ferox (an introduced species from Europe reportedly found in southern California), the mother spider lays her first clutch of eggs and stays nearby to guard them until the babies hatch. This maternal behavior is consistent with many other species of arachnids and is therefore hardly noteworthy. But then it gets interesting. After the spiderlings emerge from the egg sac, they interact with their mother, and she is induced by this interaction to lay a second clutch of eggs. This time, the eggs are laid before they are mature, and consequently this clutch of eggs serves as food for the spiderlings that hatched from the first clutch. This is referred to as trophic egg laying and is a strategy employed by several other species of animals, including some species of poison dart frogs. The spiderlings that receive this food are heavier and have a higher survival rate than spiderlings deprived of the trophic egg meal.

Callobius arizonicus. Callobius are found in cool areas, such as the mountains of Arizona and the forests of California.

But the mother spider’s sacrifice does not end there. The mother and her offspring interact further, and this time she actually appears to solicit her babies to feed on her. This the babies do, collectively killing and feeding on their mother. This matriphagy appears to be regulated by the life stage of the spiderlings, the reproductive state of the mother, and the behavioral interactions of the mother and her young. The spiderlings derive considerable benefit from this behavior. They are heavier and larger at the time they disperse compared with spiderlings deprived of their mother as food, including groups of spiderlings given an abundance of other prey to eat.

Finally, the matriphagous spiderlings have a longer period of social behavior, compared with the nonmatriphagous spiderlings. The subsocial spiderlings live together through several instar stages on the web of their mother, cooperatively killing prey and sharing it. The maternal web appears to provide a superior platform for the offspring to detect and cooperatively kill prey, as compared with webs that the spiderlings construct themselves. Prey that would be too large for one or two spiderlings to overcome is killed by groups of spiderlings, and that prey is shared even with those that did not take part in that particular kill. The spiderlings appear to use coordinated teamwork to subdue prey that is up to 10 times the size of any individual spiderling. Cooperative prey capture increases predation efficiency and survival of all the spiderlings.

Most of the members of the family Amaurobiidae live in cool, moist habitats, making their webs under debris, in caves, or in the nooks and crannies of trees. California boasts the greatest diversity of these spiders in the United States. In the arid southwestern states, Callobius arizonicus lives principally at higher elevations where it is cooler and moister. Found under rocks and dead wood, several individual Callobius spiders may share a single shelter. Only centimeters may separate their webs, indicating some degree of tolerance between individuals of the same species. Also like Amaurobius, Callobius guards her egg sac, which is produced in the shelter of her refuge. But in the case of Callobius, it is unknown whether the mother spider feeds her young.

 

Amazing Arachnids
By Jillian Cowles

The American Southwest is home to an extraordinary diversity of arachnids, from spitting spiders that squirt silk over their prey to scorpions that court one another with kissing and dancing. Amazing Arachnids presents these enigmatic creatures as you have never seen them before. Featuring a wealth of color photos of more than 300 different kinds of arachnids from eleven taxonomic orders–both rare and common species—this stunningly illustrated book reveals the secret lives of arachnids in breathtaking detail, including never-before-seen images of their underground behavior.

Amazing Arachnids covers all aspects of arachnid biology, such as anatomy, sociality, mimicry, camouflage, and venoms. You will meet bolas spiders that lure their victims with fake moth pheromones, fishing spiders that woo their mates with silk-wrapped gifts, chivalrous cellar spiders, tiny mites, and massive tarantulas, as well as many others. Along the way, you will learn why arachnids are living fossils in some respects and nimble opportunists in others, and how natural selection has perfected their sensory structures, defense mechanisms, reproductive strategies, and hunting methods.

  • Covers more than 300 different kinds of arachnids, including ones new to science
  • Features more than 750 stunning color photos
  • Describes every aspect of arachnid biology, from physiology to biogeography
  • Illustrates courtship and mating, birth, maternal care, hunting, and defense
  • Includes first-ever photos of the underground lives of schizomids and vinegaroons
  • Provides the first organized guide to macroscopic mites, including photos of living mites for easy reference

 

Bird Fact Friday – the Parakeets of Chile

Adapted from pages 152-153 of Birds of Chile:

The Slender-billed Parakeet is endemic to the Lake District, from Araucanía to Chiloé. It is fairly common in farmland, other semi-open areas with forest patches and scattered tall trees. They frequently travel in scattered pairs or flocks, often numbering in the 100s, even 1000s. The feed in trees and on the ground, digging with its bills for seeds. They typically fly at a treetop level, but are also known for going high overhead, especially when in large flocks. Varied raucous and shrieky calls at times suggest lapwings. They are identifiable by their long, slender bill hook, and bright red face patch.

The Austral Parakeet resembles the Slender-billed Parakeet, though the latter has brighter blue wings. These birds are typically found in South or Central Chile, and are fairly common north of Maule. They are native to forests and woodland, and live adjacently to farmland with forest patches. They typically live in pairs or small flocks, rarely exceeding 100 birds. They do not mix with the Slender-billed Parakeet. These parakeets typically feed in trees or on the ground, and fly mostly near treetop height. Their calls are varied, raucous screeches. 

Monk Parakeets are found in central Chile, where they are local but increasingly escaped cage birds, mainly in Santiago and Valparaíso. They are found in parks, urban and rural areas with taller trees, and they frequently feed in trees and on the ground. They nest colonially in bulky stick nests at mid-upper levels in trees. They can be identified by their are rasping shrieks, or lower, more gravelly calls. These birds have a distinct look due to their ashy-gray faces and chests; no other species in Chile look like this.

Finally, the Burrowing Parakeet is native to Central Chile, often found in the Andean foothills from south Atacama to Male. These birds are typically seen in open woodland and farmland with nearby bluffs or cliffs, where they nest colonially in burrows. They typically roam in pairs or small flocks, on the ground or in trees. They are known for their laughing calls, singly or in a series. These parakeets also have a distinct, unmistakable look, with a dark green face, white chest, yellow-red underparts, and dark wings.

Fly over to our Instagram to see photos of these four birds.

 

 

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

Insect of the Week: A Guide to Lightningbug Linguistics

Ever wish you could understand what the fireflies are saying? Well, you can!

The fireflies you’ll see most often in the eastern United States belong to one of the 34+ species of Photinus lightningbugs. These familiar fireflies fill our summer evenings with delight – they’re easy to catch because they fly at a leisurely pace, low above the ground. During summer months, different species make brief appearances, each with a mating season that lasts only a few weeks. Different Photinus species also start their courtship flashing at different times of night: certain species court just at dusk, while others wait until full darkness.

Taxonomically speaking, you need to inspect the male genitalia to really pin down Photinus species identifications. But many species also differ in the pattern and timing of their courtship flashes. So you can learn to distinguish species by paying close attention to the exchange of flash signals between males and females (using a stopwatch will help).

Photinus courtship goes like this: each evening, flying males advertise their availability by broadcasting a species-specific flash pattern. Females, who can fly but generally don’t, sit perched in vegetation and watch for males as they pass by. A females may respond to attractive male by curling her abdomen in his direction and giving him a flash back – it’s her “come hither” sign! When he flies closer and flashes again, they might strike up a conversation. This back-and-forth flash dialog will continue – often attracting other amorous males – until the pair finally meets and mates.

The guide below will help you decipher the distinctive courtship flash patterns given by 11 of our common Photinus species:

Here’s how to read the chart: for each species, the males’ flash patterns are shown in blue, next to the response flashes of their corresponding female (shown in red, note change in time scale).

The top six rows show species where the male flash pattern consists of a single pulse of light that’s repeated at fixed time intervals. You can recognize what Photinus species these males belong to by paying close attention to their flash timing. For instance, Photinus pyralis males give a leisurely flash (about ¾ of a second in duration), which they repeat every 5-6 seconds. In contrast, Photinus marginellus males emit a quick flash (less than ½  a second), and repeat this every 3 seconds.

The next three rows show Photinus species where males emit a double-pulsed flash pattern. Here it’s the time interval between the two pulses that differs among species; this interval ranges from about ½ second in Photinus consanguineus to 2 seconds in Photinus macdermotti. In the last two species males give multiple pulses that vary in the number and interval between pulses.

Female responses are illustrated on the right-hand side of the chart. Look down in the grass for females, and measure how long it takes them to answer a male’s flash. In Photinus marginellus, females will respond almost immediately (within less than a second), while Photinus ignitus females have a response delay of about 4 seconds.

With practice, you can use these flash patterns to recognize many different Photinus species, so step outside and have some fun! You can learn more about these courtship conversations in Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

 

silent sparksSilent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

Bird Fact Friday: Seedeaters

Adapted from pages 220-221 of Birds of Chile:

The Chestnut-throated Seedeater is fairly common in the oasis valleys of Arica, as well as Northern lowlands. These birds – which are typically 10.5-11cm in length – flock in agricultural areas with brushy hedgerows and weedy fields. They can often be found singing on phone wires, with a song that is squeaky and slightly tinny. This song’s tempo varies from leisurely to rapid and bubbly; at times it’s prolonged. Their call is either a nasal cheh or a slightly smacking tchip. Males can be identified with their gray head and back in breeding plumage; females have faint streaking on their breast and a big, pinkish bill. Male juveniles resemble females, but are buffer.

A female Chestnut-throated Seedeater (Sporophila telasco).

A male Band-tailed Seedeater (Catamenia analis).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Band-tailed Seedeater is found in the North Andes, and is fairly common in the precordillera of Arica. They can be seen in shrubby slopes and agricultural areas or villages, while they frequently feed in bushes and on the ground, often with other seed-eating birds in recently cut alfalfa fields. Their song is varied short buzzes and buzzy, ringing trills; at times it becomes a high, chipping twitter. Their call is a high, slightly buzzy tzzip or tzzip-zzip. Both sexes have stubby, yellowish bills, a rusty vent, and a white band at the base of their tail best seen in flight.

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

 

Plants That Kill: Neem Tree

Adapted from page 217 of Plants That Kill:

Neem, also known as Indian neem, is grown across the tropics and subtropics as a shade tree, for reforestation programmes and in plantations for production of azadirachtin, but is considered invasive in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Australia, where it has become naturalized. The seeds of Philippine neem (Azadirachta excelsa), which is native to Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, and has naturalized in Singapore and Thailand, are also a source of neem insecticides. However, even though neem-based pesticides are a good biological alternative to synthetic compounds, accidental ingestion of neem products or seeds has resulted in a number of deaths, especially in children.

While the effectiveness of neem insecticides is directly associated with azadirachtin content, the biological activity of many of the other compounds present in the neem tree (most of which are also triterpenoids of the limonoid group) add to its effect. Used in their natural combination, they may be helpful in mitigating the development of pesticide resistance.

The neem tree (Azadirachta indica) can reach 10–20 m (30–65 ft) in height. It has compound leaves with several pairs of leaflets and heads of 150–250 small white flowers. Photo credit: QpicImages, Alamy Stock Photos

The antifeedant activity of azadirachtin and some of the other neem compounds is through their stimulation of specific ‘deterrent’ cells on the insect mouthparts, while blocking other receptor cells that normally stimulate feeding, resulting in starvation and death of the insect. Insects vary considerably in their behavioural responses to azadirachtin. Studies on the desert locust have shown that it has a particularly high sensitivity to azadirachtin as an antifeedant, being deterred from feeding at concentrations of 0.04 parts per million. Interestingly, North American grasshoppers, including the American grasshopper (Schistocerca americana), which is in the same genus as the desert locust, are insensitive to azadirachtin at such low concentrations. 

Insects that are not deterred from feeding on azadirachtin do not die immediately, but soon stop eating due to the action of the compound on a number of physiological pathways. It interferes with moulting and growth, for example, by blocking production and release of moulting hormones, causing moulting defects, and it disrupts reproduction by reducing the number of viable eggs and live progeny. 

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more

 

Insect of the Week: Synchronous Symphonies

Among all the glamorous mating rituals that have been shaped by evolution, the displays performed by certain synchronously flashing fireflies might rank as the most spectacular. For reasons we don’t yet understand, only a few lightningbugs show a remarkable behavior: thousands of male fireflies will match up their rhythms to flash together in unison. Two distinct types of synchronous flash behavior have been observed: one type involves stationary males, while the other takes place among roving (flying) fireflies.

In southeast Asia, certain Pteroptyxmale fireflies sit in communal display trees along tidal rivers, where each night they spend hours flashing together in perfect synchrony. Females fly to these stationary aggregations, known as leks, where mating occurs.

Writing in the journal Science in 1935, Hugh Smith, a naturalist living in Thailand, described these dazzling displays:

Photo credit: Radim Schreiber

Imagine a tree thirty-five to forty feet high thickly covered with small ovate leaves, apparently with a firefly on every leaf and all the fireflies flashing in perfect unison at the rate of about three times in two seconds, the tree being in complete darkness between the flashes. Imagine a dozen such trees standing close together along the river’s edge with synchronously flashing fireflies on every leaf. Imagine a tenth of a mile of riverfront with an unbroken line of Sonneratia[mangrove] trees with fireflies on every leaf flashing in synchronism, the insects on the trees at the ends of the line acting in perfect unison with those between.

 

Because fireflies congregrate so predictably in the same trees, night after night for months, native boatmen once navigated among the twisting waterways using firefly display trees as landmarks.

But stationary flash synchrony doesn’t happen in any North American fireflies. Instead, several of our lightningbug species show a kind of wave synchrony, where flashes are synchronized locally among males flying within line-of-sight of each other. In the southern Appalachians, the synchronous symphony of Photinus carolinusattracts thousands of visitors to admire these flying males as they coordinate their six-pulsed courtship flashes with those of nearby males. These fireflies create waves of synchronous flashing that moves through the forest in the Allegheny National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Similar displays of wave synchrony among roving males can be seen in mating displays of Photuris frontalis in Congaree National Park, South Carolina, Photinus knulli in Arizona, and Macrolampis palaciosi in Tlaxcala, Mexico. When they’re in a dense population, males of other fireflies will sometimes synchronize their flashes for a short time.

Wherever you find them, synchronous fireflies make an indelible impression – they are certainly one of Earth’s great natural treasures!

 

Learn more about firefly synchrony in Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, and on the author’s firefly blog.

silent sparksSilent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.