September 23, 2015

Look, Don't Touch. The Spiny, Bright & Venomous Caterpillars of Peru

When you think of a caterpillar, your mind usually turns to an image of a plump little grub-like insect with stubby legs, happily munching away on a leaf. But caterpillars in the jungle don't mess around. Surrounded by predatory spiders, ants, birds and lizards, it's a wonder how any caterpillar reaches its final butterfly or moth form.

While many caterpillars remain remarkably cryptic, blending in with their environment, some take the opposite approach. Evolution has carved out warrior-like caterpillars that don spiny armor plastered in bright warning colors. To pack on an extra punch, many of these caterpillars harbor venom-tipped spines that will leave the attacker, or unfortunate human, with a painful skin rash and in some cases even death.

I'm always fascinated yet cautious when I encounter these caterpillars in the wild, so here are some of the coolest looking Lepidoptera larvae I've encountered trekking through the Peruvian Amazon.

Hiking through a bamboo forest, we found this large, spiny caterpillar chilling on a twig. Possible ID as Pseudautomeris yourii

 View of long spines protruding near the head.

One of our group members said it reminded her of a frosted birthday cake...

 I spotted this big bright caterpillar near the Refugio Amazonas lodge. Possible ID as Automeris innoxia

Those spines do not look pleasant to touch, like a nightmarish Christmas tree.

Front view of the head

 Next up is the infamous "Donald Trump Caterpillar". My buddy Phil Torres helped make this critter an internet sensation when he documented it at the Posada Jungle lodge a while back.

This Neotropical species belongs to the family Megalopygidae and has a nasty reputation for its itchy pain-inducing setea.

Dorsal view of Mr. Trump-pillar 

A closer look at the Donald Trump caterpillar's spine. Notice the little barbs on each hair - youch! Image was taken using the Foldscope at 140X.

 If he could talk, I'd imagine the Trump-pillar calling all other caterpillars a bunch o' losers

Here's a purple Trump caterpillar we found back in December - lookin' sharp!

 Back in December my friend Chris Johns helped photograph this beautiful green Saturniid caterpillar, possibly Automeris sp?

 This spiky caterpillar reminded me of a crawling cactus. If you look close, you can even see a couple of ants skewered like Shish kebob!

Last but certainly not least, this fancy sack of fuzz is known as the Shag Carpet caterpillar. These bizarre moth larvae have thick coats of red hair with carpet-like pattern in black and white on top.

 Compilation of the spiny, bright & venomous caterpillars of Peru photographed in the field Meet Your Neighbors style

 For more updates you can follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronPomerantz

September 14, 2015

Epic Camera Trap Photos From The Peruvian Amazon + Termites Attack!

Tambopata, Peru – Wildlife photographer Jeff Cremer got a big surprise the other day when he came back to check on his camera trap that he left out in the jungle to film rare animals. When he walked up to the camera he saw that a colony of termites had started building a nest inside and around his camera, destroying it in the process. “At first I thought that they only got at the outside of the camera and that it would be fine” said Jeff, “But when I took the lens off I saw that they were inside the camera started building on the lens as well.  They even started eating the memory card that was inside the camera.”

What do you do in the jungle? Jeff is a wildlife photographer based in the Amazon jungle of southeastern Peru.

Jeff Cremer is a wildlife photographer in the Peruvian Amazon. You can follow him on twitter @JCremerPhoto

What is a camera trap? A camera trap is a remotely activated camera that is equipped with a motion sensor or an infrared sensor as a trigger. Camera trapping is a method for capturing wild animals on film when researchers are not present, and has been used in ecological research for decades.

What can you tell us about the termites and why were they attracted to the camera? The termites look to be some sort of nasutitermes. The nasute termite genus Nasutitermes is widely distributed all over the tropical regions. They get their name because the soldier caste possesses a frontal projection called the nasus.

There are around 70 nasutiterme species in the neotropics.

Lucas Carnohan, a termite specialist, says “I'd guess they weren't particularly drawn to the camera so much as Jeff happened to put the camera on the ground in a place with a lot of active termites. So they did what termites do and put muddy termite poo tunnels all over it while exploring the new terrain”

Termites play an important role in decomposition processes in tropical forest ecosystems. They affect the landscape and soil composition by breaking down the biomass with the aid of resident gut microbiota.

“In the Amazon, every single niche is exploited, including Canon camera bodies. Maybe because Jeff weather proofed it so well the termites found it to be a suitable fortress to colonize.” says entomologist AaronPomerantz

When Termites Attack

Termites tried making their nest inside the camera. 

Termites also put their muddy termite poo all over the lens.

Did the memory card survive? Did you get some good camera trap photos?

The memory card survived and I got some shots of some amazing and rare animals.

  • Puma It seems like Mr. Puma was walking through the jungle one evening minding his own business when a camera took his picture. Mr. Puma turned towards the sound while the camera took another pic. He then walked right up to the camera and looked at it with a sad face, then walked off.  Puma are huge iconic predators of the Amazon.  They are the fourth largest cat in the world with adults standing about 60 to 90 cm (24 to 35 in) tall at the shoulders. Pumas are, like most cats, metaturnal. That means that they sleep partly through the day and partly through the night. These agile yet powerful cats hunt by stalking and ambushing their prey. They like to feed on tapir but sometimes feed on smaller animals.



Mr. Puma checking out the camera

  •  Ocelot and Margay – These “mini-jaguars” are an awesome find. They look very similar but have their differences.
    • Margay: smaller body size, longer tail, larger eyes, bigger, rounded ears (all in respect to body/head size).  Margay are nocturnal and spend most of their lives in the trees but sometimes come down to hunt rats and other small mammals.
    • Ocelot: larger body size, shorter tail, smaller eyes, a bit more triangular smaller ears (in respect to general anatomy). The fur pattern is also distinctive in each species. Ocelot are also nocturnal but hunt prey on the ground.


  • Amazonian Tapir - Tapirs are the largest mammals in the Amazon, but their large size doesn’t mean they’re easy to find. Tapirs are notoriously difficult to see with one Tapir researcher spending over a year in the field only to catch a glimpse of just one in person! These odd-looking creatures look similar to a horse but are actually more closely related to the Rhinoceros. (Source:
An adult Tapir

A baby taper following its mom down the trail

  • Giant Armadillo – These guys are super rare. There are only two or three per every 100 square kilometers. The necks and backs of Giant Armadillos are covered in flexible "armor" consisting of 14 to 17 moveable bands of horn and bone. The head and body of giant armadillos measure 30- to 40- inches long, and their tails reach about 20 inches. Armadillos can reach 130 pounds, but most weigh between 40 and 70 pounds.

A rare Giant Armadillo (Male)

  • Peccary –Peccaries are a type wild pigs that can be found in the rainforest of  Tambopata. This large pig quickly disappears from areas subject to hunting and deforestation. They seem to require large, unbroken tracts of lowland rainforest such as those of the Tambopata region. Seeing Peccary here is a good sign and means that this part of the rainforest is still healthy.
  •  Spix’s Guan – A guan is an arboreal bird that somewhat resembles a turkey in size and shape. They are another sign of a healthy rainforest since in places where hunting occurs the large birds become easy and desired targets and quickly disappear.
Spix's Guan

How did you know where to put the camera trap?
I spend a lot of time in the jungle hiking and going on expeditions. I came across what seemed to be some active trails that wildlife use close to the Tambopata river so I thought that it would be a good place for a camera trap.

What can you do to protect the camera in the future?

Some people modify pelican cases to fit their cameras and gear. I just ordered one. :)

August 27, 2015

[Zoomable Image] I took all these pics of moths and stuff that came to a light trap that we set up in the Amazon.

We set up a light trap for a couple of nights at the Tambopata Research Center. I took pictures of as many different different moths and bugs that I could find and added them to a single picture. I left all the images full resolution so you can zoom in and see each insect in full resolution. I also numbered the insects and bugs to help with identifying them.

August 04, 2015

What the Fulgorid?


These aren't your typical tiny bugs. Fulgorids are outstanding sap-feeding insects and certain species are very rare to come across in the Peruvian Amazon; two large species in particular caught our attention and were particularly worthy of photo ops.

Commonly known as planthoppers, these insects come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Members of Hemiptera, suborder Auchenorrhyncha, are typically quite small, but the Lantern fly, aka peanut-headed bug, is actually pretty hefty for an insect.

The Lantern fly aka Peanut-headed bug

Introducing Fulgora lampetis. Can you tell why people call it the peanut-headed bug? This insect has a peanut-shaped protuberance which sports false eyes that may resemble that of a lizard or serpent. When threatened, the large insect will flash its hind wings that have bright yellow false eye spots.
Peanut-headed bug displaying false-eye spots on hind wings

What's incredibly odd is that there's a pretty serious myth surrounding this species. The insect inspires feelings of fear and aversion in some local populations, as some natives believe Fulgora laternaria bears a devastating poison that dries up trees on which it feeds and also kills both men and animals (Costa-Neto & Pacheco 2003). To quote one native man interviewed in the article,

"It has a sting in its belly. If it strikes a tree it dries up. It can be a jackfruit tree, it can be a coconut tree, whatever. Even if it strikes a person he/she will die. (Mr. M., 57 years old)."

While this large insect does sport piercing-sucking mouth parts, they are only used to suck the juices from plants and they don't harbor any deadly venom. Still, the myth perpetuates.

Next up we have another fulgorid: Phenax variegata. This beauty was actually chilling in a lamp above some jungle lodge guests at dinner and Jeff and I just had to take some pictures.

Phenax variegata (Fulgoridae)
Look at that pretty face
I honestly wouldn't be surprised if they based the "Brain Bug" from Starship Troopers on the fulgorid face

Then Jeff busted out the 65 MP-E macro lens for even closer shots.

Close-up wing pattern of Phenax variegata

Close-up of the antenna

Planthoppers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so last but not least, here are a few more species we've recently encountered in the jungle:

A membracid planthopper - interesting hump-back and spikes
A very bizarre looking planthopper nymph

Leafhoppers being tended by Cephalotes ants

Another fulgorid species (Lystra lanata) with a very waxy "tail"

A membracid with an ant attendant. Ants love the sugary excrement of planthoppers

Photographing the large fulgorid after dinner at the Tambopata Research Center

For more posts you can follow me on Twitter @AaronPomerantz

July 05, 2015

Journey to a Rare Harpy Eagle Nest


Timing is everything in the Amazon rainforest. So when Jeff and I heard that there was a harpy eagle nest near the Refugio Amazonas Jungle Lodge, we knew that we had a narrow window of opportunity to see these rare birds caring for their young.

 Biologist Aaron Pomerantz and Wildlife Photographer Jeff Cremer visit a rare harpy eagle nest in Tambopata, Peru

Why are harpy eagles so cool? For one, they are the largest eagle in the Americas and are considered the most powerful bird of prey in the entire world. With tarsal claws 5 inches long and a wingspan of up to six and a half feet, these beautiful and formidable predators make quick meals out of monkeys and sloths.

An adult harpy eagle brings back a howler monkey for breakfast. Image by Chris A. Johns

Harpy eagle nests are extremely rare and difficult to find. One researcher I spoke with in Peru described searching for harpy eagle nests like "searching for a needle in a haystack!" There are several reasons for their elusiveness:

  • Harpy eagle nests are sparsely distributed throughout the vast rainforest
  • The adults have slow reproductive rates, producing one chick every two to three years
  • They tend to nest in massive trees, like the Brazil nut, making them difficult to spot from the ground

This last reason made things tricky. If we wanted to film this nest, we were going to need to be high up. So we grabbed our camera equipment, ropes and harnesses, then climbed up 100 feet into the canopy to observe this rare harpy eagle chick.

The harpy eagle nest is constructed in a massive tree in the Amazon rainforest

The view from the canopy was pretty incredible. We could overlook the seemingly limitless green rainforest and were eye-level with the nest. Jeff's camera equipment came in handy - although we were around 30 meters away from the nest, the 600mm and 800mm lenses caught some really sharp footage of the chick.

The chick calls out to the adults for food, mainly eating monkeys and sloths

The harpy eagle chick is about 6 months old and looks strong and healthy. The adults have been visiting the nest less frequently and the chick is becoming more active, which indicates it may fledge soon.

The adult harpy eagle shreds a freshly caught monkey for the chick

All in all, the journey was well worth it. Everyone was safe getting up and down from the canopy and the eagles were not disturbed. We feel very fortunate to have seen such an incredible animal in its natural environment and hope to see the chick return someday as a full grown adult with a wild mate of its own.

The harpy eagle chick will one day be the top aerial predator in this jungle

You can follow us on Twitter @AaronPomerantz and @JCremerPhoto!

Check out more awesome images by wildlife photographer Jeff Cremer and visit!

© 2013 Peru Nature Blog
powered by Blogger