Readers’ wildlife photos

Remember to send in your good wildlife photos; the tank is getting a bit low.

Reader Mark Sturtevant sent a batch of insect photos, which I’ve divided into two parts. Here are the first five with his notes (indented):

The first picture is of a Pale Green Assassin Bug (Zelus luridus), which is feeding on an unidentifiable hemipteran.


Next is one of the bee-like robber flies in the genus Laphria, possibly L. janus. This is a cousin to the larger and more spectacular robber flies that mimic bumble bees. This species was pretty common this past summer, and I wonder why I hadn’t noticed it before.


The next two pictures are of a nice find I had on my ‘lucky tree stump’. One day I found a pair of giant ichneumon wasps (Megarhyssa macrurus) that were competing to parasitize another stingless wasp known as a horntail (often Tremex columba). When the female horntail lays eggs in dead wood, she inoculates the wood with a fungus that softens the dead wood and helps the larvae to bore into it, and it is the fungus that the ichneumons have detected. They will drill in the vicinity of the horntail larva with their extraordinarily long ovipositor, and each will lay a single, very elongate egg into it. It will be curtains for the young horntail because it will be eaten alive in its wood home.



Here is a video showing an ichneumon drilling into wood. During this sequence, you can see that the membrane between some of the abdominal segments stretches to accommodates a loop in the ovipositor that forms during the early stages of the drilling process. But as the oviposter is drilled deeper into the wood, the loop of ovipositor shortens in the abdomen, and the membrane shrinks away. In this examplek the horntail larva was apparently buried deep because the ichneumon wasp drilled her entire ovipositer into the wood, right up to the hilt! I suppose we are seeing the current status of the evolutionary arms race between the deep-burrowing host, and deep-drilling parasite.

Next is an especially beautiful insect, the ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata). I am very sentimental over these common woodland divas because I came across them in one of my first insect collecting hunts in a forest as a youngster. Living in plain old Iowa, I was astonished to see an insect that would look at home in an exotic rain forest. This individual is a male.

I generally don’t take more pictures of insects after they are well documented in my portfolio, but the jewel wing damselflies are among the exceptions to that informal policy. Besides being very beautiful, I enjoy the challenges that they present. They are shade-loving, which presses me to use the flash, but their metallic colors tend to not come out well with the flash, so I have been trying a variety of experiments to get the right effect. This summer I learned that I can sometimes get a true representation of their colors by bouncing the flash up from the ground or down from the canopy. I suppose I am still looking for the perfect picture, although I do like this one well enough that it is now my computer desktop picture. But I have other pictures of this species that I like a little bit better.



And, to celebrate the Wise Men who followed the stars to Baby Jesus, I’m presenting a star photo by Tim Anderson from Cowra, New South Wales. His notes (he did not mention the Christmas tale!):

‘Tis the season for the Orion Nebula. This image is composed from 420 30-second exposures taken with a Canon 80D camera and 200mm telphoto lens on a Skywatcher Star Adventurer mount.



  1. Mike
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    I give thanks every day , that these mini monsters are as small as they are, and I believe it was the aforementioned ichneumon Wasp that convinced Sir David Attenborough of the non-existence of God, as he could conceive of a deity that would create such an abomination.(my words”

    • Posted December 24, 2016 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Yes, we really are lucky that our species is near the top of the food chain!!

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 24, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        Yes, we really are lucky that our species is near the top of the food chain!!

        Said the first mosquito to the second mosquito.

        Yes, we really are lucky that our species is near the top of the food chain!!

        Said the first Plasmodium merozoite to the second Plasmodium merozoite

        • Mike
          Posted December 27, 2016 at 8:08 am | Permalink


    • jaxkayaker
      Posted December 24, 2016 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      I don’t know if Sir David said such or not, but certainly Darwin did. From Wikipedia:

      “The apparent cruelty of the ichneumonids troubled philosophers, naturalists, and theologians in the 19th century, who found the parasitoid life style inconsistent with the notion of a world created by a loving and benevolent God. Charles Darwin found the example of the Ichneumonidae so troubling that it contributed to his increasing doubts about the nature and existence of a Creator. In an 1860 letter to the American naturalist Asa Gray, Darwin wrote:

      ‘I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.'”

      • Mike
        Posted December 27, 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

        I may have got my sources confused (my age)but I recollect Sir David mentioning that anecdote, but as you say it must been about Darwin,I stand corrected.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    So the Orion Nebula took 3.5 hours of work?

    • Tim Anderson
      Posted December 24, 2016 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      It took about four hours to collect the images (fortunately, I slept through the period), but it took about 14 hours to process the data.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted December 24, 2016 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        Amazing. Had no idea how much work can go into this.

  3. Posted December 24, 2016 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Great photos and text. That ebony jewelwing damselfly is also one of my favorites from my Wisconsin childhood.

    • Posted December 24, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Me too. So, are the males green and the females indigo? Or does it just depend on the relative positions of me, the damselfly, and the sun?

      Beautiful photos, thanks Mark.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted December 24, 2016 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        Females are also metallic, but their color is more greenish-yellow. Stay tuned for the later installment of pix.

  4. rickflick
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Delightful set this morning!!
    The ichneumon drilling into wood is painful to watch…in the nicest possible way.

  5. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    The Orion nebula is the first nebula that I had seen through a telescope, and it is good to see this familiar object here, maybe 1000 times brighter. You can even see it with binoculars.

  6. Posted December 24, 2016 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Lovely photos, thanks!

  7. Posted December 24, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    That just looks painful, and I don’t even have an ovipositor.

  8. Jenny Haniver
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    The insect photos and video are very cool, and the accompanying notes are engrossing, though reading about the fate of that wasp made me queasy,* but such is the way of the insect world. Pace, Don Marquis, but no metempsychosis for me, thanks.

    Yesterday, was Jean-Henri Fabre’s birthday, and I commented that I loved his insect stories; they brought the insect world to me in close-up, and one could read about the insects and their daily lives, and get lost in the grass, so to speak, just as Mark Sturtevant does when he goes out and literally gets lost in the grass observing and photographing insects and other beasties. And he, too, has fine and fascinating stories to tell about his discoveries and a way of telling them that bring a Fabre-like immediacy to the reader, at least to this reader.

    Just tripping on the colors and swirls and sparkles, the photo of the Orion Nebula is mesmerizing and, though I try to suppress it, paredolia takes over and I start seeing all manner of beings and parts of beings in the nacreous swirl. Thank my lucky stars I’m not a theist.

    *Interesting to read in comments about how troubling this activitiy of the Ichneumon wasp was to Darwin in terms of theistic belief. Why the Ichneumon wasp in particular, when the animal kingdom is full of behaviors that we, humans find exquisitely cruel and senseless and frequently completly bizarre and wacko?

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted December 24, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Thank you. I do get very engrossed ‘out there’. As a youngster I was pretty enthralled by J.-H. Fabre’, and made a portrait of him for my bedroom wall.

  9. Posted December 24, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Incredible images
    The Science Geek

  10. Diane G.
    Posted December 24, 2016 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    What a treat these pictures are!

    As always, Mark, your pics lavishly reward enlarging. The closer I look the more fascinating they get! And the ichneumonid vid is astounding! I was surprised to see (what I think was) it immediately beginning to retract the ovipositor seemingly right after reaching maximum insertion. Guess I expected to see a delay for egg deposition. Also, thanks for helping me finally understand where that membrane comes from.

    Tim, that nebula photo is stunning! I love that we went from macro shots of insects to such an amazing capture of outer space beauty and awe. What a great time to live in the universe we do, now that we have the instruments and the expertise to portray it so rivetingly.

    • Tim Anderson
      Posted December 24, 2016 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      One amazing thing is that we can use the same instrument to take both kinds of image.

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 24, 2016 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

        What a great point!

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