Category Archives: Photography

Level up: professional photography status achieved!

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Thanks to the fine work of Cambridge’s Prof. Rebecca Kilner and her colleagues, in addition to her giving me access to her lab next year to photograph her beetles, today I have a photograph appearing in The Economist! The Kilner group have a new paper in the journal eLife that demonstrates how different levels of parental care have strong effects on offspring once they themselves have reached adulthood. I made the photograph above available via Creative Commons Attribution Licence so that it could be used in eLife, but The Economist wanted to use a different one, which they paid a licensing fee for (see below):

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Check out their story here.

Coverage of the paper, along with my photos, is taking off – see IFLS, phys.org, the Naked Scientists (includes podcast interview with Becky), Cambridge University‘s general coverage (with links to Radio 4 interview with Becky)…

I had a lot of fun trying to photograph the behaviour of these beetles, so here are some more pics!

My 2014, in pictures (and also words)

2014 is drawing to a close; it’s been a weird year, and I didn’t realise until now quite how much I’ve neglected writing posts on here. I have been spending more time on photography, although you will have to indulge the first section of this post being filled with photos taken by others…

LEVEL UP: PhD achieved!

I have a good excuse for no blog posts during the first couple of months of 2014 at least, as my PhD thesis was due for submission at the end of February. My state of mind is probably evident in that the only photographs I took during this period were of my pet mantis eating some of my study species (the decorated cricket, Gryllodes sigillatus).

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Even more telling are the photos of me handing in my thesis.

Yes. That’s the face of a man who has barely slept for many days, getting blasted by a party popper. Thankfully I was looking a little better by April, when I defended my thesis (‘Causes of adaptive differences in age-dependent reproductive effort’) in my viva; Dr. Andre Gilburn (University of Stirling) and Dr. Alexei Maklakov (Uppsala University) were the examiners, and we had a really interesting and fun discussion! As several people have said, you should make the most of talking to the only people who will ever read your thesis…

Of course, I looked even better once I had donned my viva hat; this was devised and created by next-in-line at the Bussiere lab, Ros Murray. Lilly has a lot to live up to when it comes to making Ros’ hat!

I should take a quick moment here to thank not only Luc, a fantastic supervisor (and all-round awesome guy), but also Ros and Lilly for general labmate amazingness, the rest of the Bussière lab (particularly Claudia, Toby, Svenja and Rheanne), Matt Tinsley, Stu Auld, Pauline Monteith and Jim Weir. Also the crickets. Sorry you’re all dead! The crickets, I mean. All of the humans are still alive. I think. And if they’re not, I definitely had nothing to do with it.

 

Goodbye to Scotland

Kirsty also finished her postdoc at around the same time as my PhD ended, but we managed a few trips to see some wildlife before leaving our beloved tiny Stirling flat – including iconic golden eagles in Findhorn Valley:

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Which mainly involved doing this for ages:

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But it was awesome. Also awesome: OTHER STUFF IN SCOTLAND. The following photos were taken at the Argaty red kite station near Doune; Carron Glen nature reserve in Denny; Loch Garten; and Baron’s Haugh nature reserve.

 

Cambridge & macro

We moved to Cambridge in May, and I have been amazed at the increase in invertebrate diversity compared to central Scotland… also, we have a pretty great garden, and nice fields and nature reserves nearby to go wandering around! I have been using these opportunities to practise macrophotography, using my Canon 100mm macro, the Canon MP-e 65, and the Sigma 15mm lens for some wide-angle macro…

I have also been photographing burying beetles for Prof. Becky Kilner’s group at the University of Cambridge, and one of these photos was given a commendation in the Royal Entomological Society’s National Insect Week photography competition:

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Another macro photo was used as the cover photo for the new album by Fresh Eyes for the Dead Guy:

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Non-macro

I have also tried to branch out into some non-macro photography, particularly playing around with long exposures, flash, and some black-and-white work. The first photo here was taken on the banks of Loch Lomond in December, by the SCENE field station where I was teaching a workshop on statistics and R alongside Luc (another one to be held in April, and places are already running out!).

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Breaking Bio podcast

The podcast has had something of an up-and-down year, as we’ve all been crazily busy and it’s hard to pin everyone (plus guest) down for a timeslot weekly. However, we’ve still had some great episodes; here are some of my favourites:

The inimitable, execrable, unrepentant badass that is Katie Hinde. Did you know that studying the evolution of lactation was a thing? IT IS.

Marlene Zuk is a bit of a science hero. Strike that: she’s a LOT of a science hero. We talk rapid evolution and crickets, at least while I can stammer out some words (I was late and SCIENCESTRUCK).

We also got involved with #SAFE13, a really important movement that is well represented by the fantastic work of Kate Clancy, Katie Hinde, Robin Nelson, and Julienne Rutherford. Not quite as light-hearted as the others above, but certainly thought-provoking and well worth half an hour of your time.

 

To 2015!

Next year, I’ll be trying to write some fun posts on research that excites me, and hopefully illustrated with more photos! I am trying to concentrate on getting interesting shots, either due to animal behaviour or better composition. I would appreciate any comments on photos here or on my 500px / flickr pages; any comments or suggestions about blog post entries are always welcome too! Hopefully the BreakingBio podcast will start strongly again in 2015 too, as we have some great guests lined up to join us.

Also, I need a proper job. I’m trying to push through publications right now, so hopefully I’ll have some paper summaries of my own to come…

Facing the facts: delighting in dragonflies

My ‘friend’ Adam Hayward is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh. His research involves the study of ageing, for which he typically uses detailed life history records from long-term studies of mammals (including sheep, elephants and humans). This means he does not have to perform experiments, instead waiting patiently until the data thwacks – like a heady, elephantine slab of numerical excrement – onto his desk. Hayward likes to mock the organisms studied by my erstwhile labmates and me: insects and other invertebrates are, he claims, innately uninteresting because they “do not have faces”.

It’s time to present some evidence to the contrary.

Check out this delighted little Odonate!

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What’s this guy smiling about? Check out his view!

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This little dude’s offering you an invisible present and IT’S ADORABLE

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That’s quite a few delightful images there. Do you have something in your eye? Our little pal here just wants to know if you’re ok. Are you ok? You ok, buddy?

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Why is this chap so happy? Look closely – it’s because he’s chewing up a delicious insect meal he’s just captured in his powerful chewing mouthparts!

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wait

no

OH GOD

THEY AREN’T SMILING AT ALL

THEY’RE JUST FLEXING THEIR HORRIFYING DEATH-DEALING MANDIBLES

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That’s right, dragonflies use their powerful mouthparts to catch their prey in mid-air and then chew and grind them to smithereens. Indeed, ‘Odonata’ (the order comprising dragonflies and damselflies) finds its origin in the Greek word ‘odonto-‘, meaning ‘tooth’, and referring to these strong mandibles. Dragonfly prey is typically other insects, although it seems they are not against kicking it up a notch:

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much research into the mechanisms behind adult dragonfly mouthparts, but that might be because everyone is a little too focused on the larval stage. Check out The Dragonfly Woman‘s post on ‘Why Dragonflies are the Best Insects‘ for some cool info on extendable mouthparts (in addition to a jet-propulsion rectal chamber, which I think is something I’ll be adding to my xmas wish list). Dragonflies have all manner of interesting behaviours and adaptations, and Stanislav Gorb‘s research into the ‘arresting’ mechanism of adult dragonfly heads is worth a read: complex microstructures fix the head in position while feeding or flying in tandem, helping stabilise gaze and avoid violent mechanical disturbance. Tandem flights are what dragonflies do after mating, which tends to be a good time to stabilise that gaze and avoid pesky violent mechanical disturbances.

Of course, the fact that a dragonfly’s expression is due to intense feeding power rather than whimsy does not mean that it is faceless. I use this post to demand an apology from Dr. Hayward! However, I fear that I have gone overboard in taking his denigrations of invertebrates at face value; somewhat ironically, it is difficult to verify the true representation of his feelings because his own face is coated in a thick, glossy coat of hair.

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…which suddenly seems extremely suspicious… perhaps worthy of a closer look…

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OH GOD

NO

RUNNNNNNNNNN

From the shadows, they come.

Drawn by the scent of their hapless prey.

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Their victims are powerless to defend themselves…
IMG_5511Sweet, delicate flesh is ripped and torn as attacks come from all sides…

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They shiver with feverish excitement…

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…as the attack turns into a frenzy of shredding, chewing maws…

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Some emerge from the writhing mass, their faces slick with gore…

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Meanwhile, the young look on in horror, knowing that soon it will be their turn to face the onslaught.

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Before long, all that is left are the dry husks of what was once a thriving group.

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Leaving our hunters to move on, covered in the bloody remnants of their latest success, in search of new victims.

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But they are not the only ones on the prowl today.

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Best pics of 2013

I should really write a little note for each of these, but I have a thesis to write… so, maybe I’ll come back to this post in March? Anyway, here are my best / favourite (not necessarily the same thing) photos that I have taken this year. It’s a bit overloaded, but I suppose that comes with a year of going to Borneo and buying a load of new camera equipment… you can see more fruits of my camera-based labour over on my flickr page as well. Click on the images below to enlarge!

Fungal excitement

I am continuing to make extremely slow progress in sorting through the thousands of photos that I took in Borneo over the summer, but thought I would highlight something I found on a walk in Danum Valley that made me extremely excited… In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I’ve never emitted a squeal of delight upon seeing a fungus before.

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This wasp has been killed by a species of Cordyceps, a genus comprising several hundred species of fungi that are pathogens of arthropods and, indeed, other fungi (see Tommy Leung’s Daily Parasite post on the rather meta Cordyceps that infects / hijacks other Cordyceps). The stalks that you can see in the picture belong to the fungus – they have sprouted out of this unfortunate insect’s body, killing it and then raining down spores of doom to infect future hosts. Which is AWESOME.

According to the cordyceps.us website, active research is underway to find Cordyceps candidates for biological control of pest insects, which is very cool; however, the majority of us will most likely know of these guys from their featuring appearance in David Attenborough’s BBC series ‘Planet Earth’, or perhaps from their role as the harbinger of zombie apocalypse in the recent video game ‘The Last of Us’.

If you are interested in the latter, good news! We had official zombie ant expert David Hughes on our podcast recently, discussing his research and also his role as media zombie advisor-in-chief, having worked not only with the creators of ‘The Last of Us’, but also with the makers of the recent film ‘World War Z’. While I couldn’t make that episode, David was kind enough to identify the species above from my photograph as Ophiocordyceps humberti.

Alternatively, you can treat yourselves to the short clip from ‘Planet Earth’, proving once again that if there’s a weird nature story out there, there’s probably an Att for that.

I SMELL A MEME COMING ON

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UPDATE

Obviously, that meme didn’t catch on, but I was invited to add my photo to a flickr group dedicated to collecting photos of fungi that kill insects and spiders, using them as a substrate… so check out a load of such images at ‘Entomopathogenic fungi‘.

Photography, and new pets

As my thesis is making me indescribably miserable, here’s a brief interlude for something more fun: my new pets! I have some delightful new creatures in my home, which are helping to stop me from slowly trying to paper-cut my wrists open with Gelman & Hill (2006).

The addition of these new pets are also borne of my burgeoning interest in invertebrate macro photography, a terribly clichéd manoeuvre that seems to affect nearly everybody who works with very small animals. I have been a little obsessed with the work of photographers such as Alex Wild and Piotr Naskrecki for some time, but it was really during the planning of my recent trip to Borneo that I decided to do some more investigation as to how it all worked.

Thus began my descent into a strange world where people speak in reverent yet frantic tones about depth of field, where light diffusion is discussed ad nauseum, where lenses are put on backwards or moved away from the camera body with tubes and bellows, where expensive electronics are combined with milk cartons, with sellotape, with pringles cans… but I digress. My new houseguests are fantastically exciting and charismatic, but they are also tiny, which makes them ideally suited to my attempts to continue with this hobby as the clammy grip of the Scottish climate begins to tighten. Inspired by the incredible photos of Thomas Shahan, I recently purchased a little duo of jumping spiders, of the species Phidippus regius. Given such a species title, they require suitably regal names, so please meet Boadicea and Prasutagus:

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By a stroke of good fortunate, I also received some Plexippus petersi babies from the very awesome Emily Burdfield-Steel; they are some tinily photogenic little scamps themselves:

It is early days yet, but I hope to amass some nice shots of all of these, and – with luck, patience, trepidation, and possibly a paintbrush to help prise them apart if things get ugly – to breed P. regius as well. You know what that means: spider porn.

I can’t wait.

Oh, and don’t worry: original small pet Professor Furious is still alive and well, and is making himself available for photoshoots. I also just found out that we are rescuing some unwanted stick insects in the near future, so I shall soon be blessed with an embarrassment of tiny riches!

But, for now, I must return to my books. These wrists won’t slowly gouge themselves.