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!

June 17, 2015

Photographing A Harpy Eagle + Canon 800mm f/5.6 lens review and Live View Focusing Technique


Harpy Eagles are the AH-64 Apache gunship helicopters of the jungle:

  • Stalking the Shadows - Harpy eagles fly below the canopy in the dense shadowy forest hunting for sloths and monkeys.
  • High Speed Flight - A harpy eagle can reach speeds of over 50mph while attacking prey in a dive.
  • Vertical Flight Capabilities - They have short, broad wings and can fly almost straight up, too, so it can attack prey from below as well as above.
  • Advanced Target Acquisition - A Harpy eagle can turn its head upside down to get a better look at its potential meal. They also have excellent vision and can see something less than 1 inch (2 centimeters) in size from almost 220 yards (200 meters) away.
  • Serious Weapons – Harpy Eagles have huge talons. Their rear talons can reach over 5 inches long – the same size as a grizzly bear’s claws!
  • How rare are harpy eagles? I don't really know but they are pretty damn rare and seeing a chick in the wild is almost impossible.

Canon 800mm f/5.6 IS USM Super Telephoto Lens

I have a Canon 800mm f/5.6 and take it everywhere with me. The lens weights almost 10lbs so it can be a little difficult hiking with it in the jungle but it’s totally worth it when I get a good shot. 

Here is why I love my 800:

  • Largest Lens That Canon Makes: Thats cool.
  • Fluorite Lens Elements: This lens is really really sharp. I think that it could be the sharpest lens that I have ever used. The reason for this is two fluorite lens elements, one UD element, and one Super-UD-glass element.  This makes for outstanding correction of chromatic aberrations and extreme contrast and sharpness.
  • Magnesium Alloy Construction – I constantly bang my cameras and lenses into trees while walking in the jungle. This lens takes all the punishment and keeps on going. One time I slipped and fell and slammed the lens onto some rocks and it didn't break. It also has weather-resistant gaskets that really come in handy in the rain.

    • Image Stabilization: The lens is image stabilized, providing up to 4 stops of correction for camera shake. Now, even though I shoot from a tripod the image stabilization help steady the image when shooting at extreme high magnifications like when I shoot with a crop sensor (1280mm) or with a 2x Teleconverter (2560mm)
    • Photographing The Rings On Saturn: This lens is so awesome you can take a picture of the rings on Saturn with it. Also, on a clear night you can see the banded clouds on Jupiter and some of its moons.  

    Photography Technique: 

    A lot of people ask me about the camera settings that I use.  Here is what I do:
    • Aperture Priority: Aperture priority, often abbreviated A or Av (for aperture value) on a camera mode dial, is a setting on some cameras that allows the user to choose a specific aperture value while the camera selects a shutter speed to match, thereby ensuring proper exposure.
    • Aperture - I use the camera in Aperture Priority mode. I set and leave the aperture value. I set the Av to f/5.6 and never move it. I do this because I want to get as much light as possible into the camera. The more light the camera gets the quicker the shutter speed can be. The quicker the shutter speed is, the less chance of a blurry image.
    • ISO - I set and leave the ISO – I normally set the ISO to 800 when I start shooting. In very basic terms, ISO is the level of sensitivity of your camera to available light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive it is to the light, while a higher ISO number increases the sensitivity of your camera. I increase the ISO in order to reduce the shutter speed. Again, the quicker the shutter speed is, the less chance of a blurry image.
    • Shutter Speed – When you are shooting in Aperture priority the camera automatically chooses the shutter speed. To make sure that the settings are correct I use something called the reciprocal rule. The basics of this rule states that if you’re hand holding your camera, your shutter speed should not be slower than the reciprocal of your effective focal length in order to avoid “camera shake,” i.e. the blur that results from any slight movement of the camera during the capture of the image. I shoot of a tripod but I use long focal length lenses that are susceptible to any little shake or vibration so I still think that this is a pretty good rule of thumb.

    Live View Focusing
    We saw this adult harpy eagle in a tree the week before.

    I also use something called “Live View Focusing” to get perfect focus and sharp images:
    • Live View and Zoom: I set the lens to manual focus and switch the camera into live view mode. I then zoom into the image and manually focus on the eye or beak of the bird.
    • Focus on the catch light: For super sharp focus I focus on the reflection (sometimes called “Catch light”) in the eye of the bird.
    • Timer Mode: I switch the cameras shutter release mode into two second timer.  This way I won’t be touching the camera when the photo is taken. This reduces camera shake and vibration. You can also use a cable release to take the photo as well. Using this technique can make the images a lot sharper. It’s good to note that this focusing technique can also be used for macro photography. I use it all the time when I’m taking pictures of bugs.

    So that's how it’s done folks. I hope that this article and video helped a little bit and gave you some ideas to try out and let me know how you like using the Live View Focusing Technique.  I think that its pretty cool. I’m going to start making more videos and writing more articles so stay tuned. I put some more pictures that I took on the trip below. – Jeff



    Slug Moth Caterpillar

    Hunting Spider

    Juvenile Cara Cara

    Titi Monkey

    Giant River Otter

    Stink Bug


    Yellow-crowned Parrot

    Spectacled Caiman


    June 09, 2015

    Putting a Foldable Microscope to the Test in the Amazon


    A couple of months ago, I received an interesting package in the mail. It looked like a standard manila envelope, but inside was a device that could quite possibly revolutionize the way we view the microscopic world. I’m referring to the Foldscope, an origami-based optical microscope that is small enough to fit inside your pocket. The real kicker: the entire cost of the instrument is less than one dollar.

    Check out our video! Foldscope in the Amazon Rainforest

    The Foldscope has received some recent and well-deserved media attention (the lab’s publication on this device recently made it in the top 20 papers in PlosOne for 2014) but I hadn’t seen many videos on the Foldscope being put to the test in the field. It seemed like there was a lot of potential for this invention but I wondered how it would fare on one of my expeditions through a jungle searching for unknown species. So I decided to assemble my miniature paper microscopes and travel to one of the most remote places in the world, the rainforest of the Peruvian Amazon, to give them a go.

    The Results

    Long story short, this device is amazing. During my time in the Amazon rainforest, I was able to investigate tiny insects, mites, fungi, and plant cells from 140x to 480x magnification without requiring a large and expensive conventional microscope.
    The cells from a flower petal recorded by connecting a cell phone to the Foldscope
    Some of the diverse arthropod specimens could potentially be new to science, so it was really exciting to document images and videos of these organisms right there in the field by connecting my phone to the Foldscope.

    An unknown species of mite documented by connecting a cell phone to the Foldscope

    A spider infected by a parasitic fungus known as Cordyceps. The circles show regions of the fungus viewed under the Foldscope

    In the video, I investigate bizarre structures on a plant, which are known as leaf galls. These are sometimes created by insects, but they usually have to be taken back to a lab and inspected in detail under a microscope. Lucky for me, I had the Foldscope in the field! It turns out these were in fact due to insect larvae, which burrowed into the leaf and tweaked the chemistry of the plant to produce galls. Even with macro photography, I couldn't get much detail of the larva, but at 140x magnification under the Foldscope I was able to document the morphology of this unknown critter.

    Top left, a leaf is covered in galls. Top right, a cross-section of a gall; notice the tiny insect larva living inside! Bottom, the larva was placed under the Foldscope and viewed on my cell phone. Pictures and videos were recorded in real-time out in the Amazon rainforest
    Suspecting that the galls were formed by some sort of wasp or fly, I later got in touch with a couple of Diptera (fly) experts, Morgan Jackson (@BioInFocus) and Dr. Stephen Gaimari, who helped identify the gall forming culprits as a possible species of fly belonging to the family Cecidomyiidae.

    Final Thoughts

    The research team, led by Dr. Manu Prakash, seeks to “democratize science” by developing tools that are able to scale up to match problems in global health and science education - and I believe they are doing just that with the Foldscope. This device is cheap, easy to use, and broadly applicable whether you're a curious young student, a medical professional in the field, or someone who is interested in the numerous tiny things that surround us. Until now, I've never had a device that made viewing and sharing the microcosmos so accessible.

    Assembling the Foldscope is simple and takes less than ten minutes

    A closer look at the moss covering a tree in the tropical rainforest

    Morphology of a neotropical pseudoscorpion - all images were taken in the field with the Foldscope!

    A breakdown of the unit costs for Foldscope components in volumes of 10,000 units, not including assembly costs (Cybulski, Clements, & Prakash 2014). The total cost of the Foldscope ranges from $0.58 to $0.97.

    The Prakash lab will be starting with phase 2 of the project shortly, which will involve much larger production runs. So if you want your own Foldscope, be sure to check out their application process through and for inquiries see their contact page

    Citation: Cybulski JS, Clements J, Prakash M (2014) Foldscope: Origami-Based Paper Microscope. PLoS ONE 9(6): e98781. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0098781

    You can follow Aaron for more updates on Twitter @AaronPomerantz and the Stanford University Researchers @PrakashLab

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