While packrafting the southeastern edge of the Northern Patagonia Ice Field along Chile’s largest river, the Baker, in search of primitive crane flies, Anand Varma and I came across an exciting find.
In a fragmented location only accessible via water, among a lichened-covered forest, we discovered a single wing of the genus Neoderus adhered to the underside of a leaf, between the Northern and Southern Ice Fields. Yes, a single wing is a fantastic find when it comes to primitive crane flies.
Most likely you have never heard of them and that is because primitive crane flies are considered to be one of the rarest groups of flies in the world and only a handful of people have been able to collect them. With only one specimen ever collected in the late 1800s in the southern Chilean fjords, the genus Neoderus can be considered the rarest of all primitive crane flies.
During my last expedition in 2015 I secured four flies, the first and only specimens collected of this genus since its discovery.
stacked image of a Female neoderus sp. hanging on a Nothofagus sp. twig. Photo by R. Isaí MAdriz
With colder temperatures marking the last chance this year to find this rare group, I set off once again to complete what Anand and I started. I decided to target the locality where I found a lone wing two years prior. I loaded my backpack, took my hiking poles (or as my collaborators call them, “my gimpy sticks”, due to the frequency of my ankle injuries) and limped into one of the most pristine creeks I have seen. After a 1100ft climb and bushwhacking across dense forest I arrived to the location.
Upon arrival I removed my hiking boots and proceeded to relieve my ankle pain in the glacial creek. Soon after, I unpacked my 60+lb backpack and identified the perfect configuration for my tree tent, which was strategically located near the creek 6ft above the ground. Below my tent, I set up my “field laboratory” consisting of a stereomicroscope from the early 1980s with generic USB lights secured by duct tape and powered via rechargeable solar battery. This arrangement allows me to collect aquatic insects and immediately identify any promising specimen under high magnification. The dream camp set up of any insect-loving seven-year-old!
Not only does my tree tent provide a dry refuge from sudden rainfall, characteristic to this area, but it is also the perfect barrier from the numerous avian intestinal discharges I am constantly being bombarded with by territorial birds.
With sunset approaching, I decided to have something to eat. I packed all the necessary gear for this short expedition but managed to forget food.
Loose in one of my backpack’s hipbelt pockets, I found a handful of stale trail mix (from sometime since September) and a piece of chocolate.
Lack of aesthetically pleasing or “proper” camping food, seem to be a trend for this site. A couple of years ago, my food bag punctured and got wet while reaching this exact location, leaving me to consume lukewarm soft cheese, soggy bread and broken crackers accidentally blended into a paste-like consistency. Read more about this particular story here.
This time was no different. As I searched the creek looking for the unknown larvae of Neoderus and other aquatic insects, I intentionally separated the largest common stoneflies. I later proceeded to make my “back-country specialty” of au naturel stonefly and stale raisin kebabs on endemic southern beech twigs, complemented with all-you-can-drink glacial melts. A true delight! My other options were: 1) No food or 2) Soggy almonds and common black fly larvae, but the latter are quite slimy and a last resort among the edible insect choices on my list.
With hunger “satisfied”, I set up my blacklight a few feet away from the stream. While waiting for insects to be attracted to the light reflected on a white sheet, I set off into the dark forest in true nerd-like fashion with my rain pants synched up to my mid abdomen, my cuffs tucked into my socks and sporting my night vision goggles in search of nocturnal six-legged gems.
stacked image of a female Neoderus sp. resting on Nothofagus sp. twigs. Photo by R. Isaí MAdriz
Throughout the night, the UV light attracted all sorts of insects, including Darwin’s beetles, half-inch-long parasitic wasps, caddisflies, moths and many midges. Alas, no Primitive Crane Flies.
Soon after midnight, rain drove away most of the insects and continued to pour until mid-morning. With sunrise approaching and a sufficient few hours of sleep, I climbed out of bed, ate a forgotten stonefly still in the “food” container and the piece of chocolate for breakfast, put on my rain gear and limped across the forest in search of the insect I came for.
After wadding through the creek for a couple of hours with no success, I decided to direct my attention to the numerous fallen trees around the forest. Interestingly, a large decaying tree still hangs 8ft high over the creek. Underneath, a Neoderus female. After squealing like a piglet for some time, I proceeded to secure the specimen. Crane flies in general are well known among taxonomists to lose or detach their legs at will. This particular female had all six legs still attached, making it the only pristine specimen in the world.
With my precious find, I headed straight back to camp. Once there, I frantically packed it all up and awkwardly limped back to my vehicle a few miles away, all the while juggling the specimen, my heavy backpack and my “gimpy sticks”.
I drove eight hours back to my headquarters and proceeded to photograph the female. After a long and continuous photography session of 48hours the female finally died, but not before yielding the photographs above. These, along with one poor quality image from 2015, are the only photographs of a live Neoderus in existence. A true reminder of the biological jewels awaiting discovery in the vicinities of the Patagonia Ice Fields.
R. Isaí Madriz identifying aquatic insects in the field. PHOTO BY R. ISAÍ MADRIZ
*The Neoderus specimen in the photographs above belongs to a new species of primitive crane fly. A scientific (peer reviewed) publication is in process to formally describe this species.
Sponges help form incredibly vibrant seafloor communities like this one in Antarctica (Photo credit: Greenpeace.)
By Rachel Downey (Australia National University & British Antarctic Survey) and Claire Christian (ASOC)
Every so often, conservationists make a concerted effort to get the public to care about some humble or overlooked species. Cephalopod Awareness Day, anyone? Photos of unusual species lacking the fur or feathers typically required for cuteness, might even go viral, if they show some charisma, for example, the smiley-faced axolotl salamander. The task gets tougher if the species doesn’t have a face (unless we consider the well-loved children’s cartoon character SpongeBob). But in a series of blog posts, we – an invertebrate scientist and an Antarctic conservationist – are going to try to convince you that sea sponges are the next unusual creature you should learn to love.
First, a few basics. Although sponges are sessile (meaning they don’t move, but they can manoeuvre a small amount to get themselves in a better position) they are animals, not plants. Sponges are minimalists – they have no organs that serve as digestive, nervous, circulatory or excretory systems – they are instead composed of masses of cells in a matrix stiffened by a collagen, silica or calcium carbonate skeleton. Sponges are by-and-large filter feeders, with their bodies composed of pores and canals, pumping the surrounding water for tiny particles of food and oxygen. However, one group of sponges has abandoned filter-feeding altogether and turned carnivorous! This special group of sponges has evolved in very food-poor environments, so has modified its internal skeleton in order to ‘hook’ (a bit like Velcro strips) passing swimming animals, often tiny crustaceans, that land upon the sponge, which they ingest over several days.
This primitive-seeming member of the animal kingdom is also far more diverse than most people realize. There are over 8500 sponge species currently known (with hundreds more being described by scientists every year), and they are found throughout the world’s oceans, from the ice-covered poles to the sun-baked tropics, from the deepest ocean trenches to the rocky inter-tidal zone. Sponges come in every colour, and vary in size enormously, from just a few millimetres to over 2 metres in size, with the largest known sponge so far (the size of a small truck) found in the deep waters near Hawaii.
Sponges are a group of animals incredibly diverse in color and shape. A grEy Hyrtios cavernosus sponge is surrounded lilac Callyspongia fallax Sponges. (Photo credit: Sven Zea, spongeguide.org).
Many sponges have cell and canal structures which enable them to grow into innumerable shapes including irregular, massive blobs, flatter, encrusting forms, perfect spheres, enormous vases, elongated tubes and elegant funnels. This ability to grow into different shapes also helps sponges adapt to different types of environments, partly explaining their presence in every marine environment. Sponges also have the amazing ability of being able to regenerate and reconstruct their entire bodies, even if broken into tiny pieces (video here) . Combined with this, is the fact that sponge cells are totipotent, each cell is like a stem cell, so any cell in a sponge body can become another cell type if required. Sponges can regenerate and change the function of every cell in their body if required – a set of talents that humans would no doubt like to have!
Another impressive sponge ability is that it can change its metabolism. Antarctic sponges have been found to have some of the largest changes in physiology of any group of animals, not surprising when they live in a part of the world with some of the most extreme environmental changes between seasons. Polar sponges must be able to cope with going from a food-poor winter with 24 hours of darkness, to a food-rich summer with 24 hours of daylight. Sponges living in the deep sea, where food is generally scarce, might also have to cope with long intervals without food.
A yellow Agelas cerebrum sponge (Photo credit: Sven Zea, spongeguide.org)
Finally, as fellow animals, sponges are family. All animals alive today have descended from a common ancestor. Sponges are now thought to have branched off of that ancestor first, with all other animal species descending from a different branch. Therefore they are the “sister” to all animals on Earth, no matter how unlike humans or frogs or toucans they seem.
In fact, sponges and humans share a lot more in common than we first thought, as a new finding indicates that we both share thesame type ofgene regulation. So, despite the sponge being a simple animal, we both share a toolkit within our bodies that regulates how and when genes are activated, meaning that this mechanism has not changed since the dawn of sponge existence. In our next post, we’ll explain how our ancient siblings exert an enormous influence on ocean environments, and how they protect themselves from a world of mobile predators.
For close to two weeks, we will discuss the many threats to the world’s wildlife and habitats, from tropical rainforests to the world’s ocean. Our planet is in the midst of an extensive, well-documented biodiversity crisis. We see a loss of species, habitats, and ecosystems critical to our planet’s health, and to the well-being of all of us—including to Indigenous Peoples and local communities that are directly dependent on healthy ecosystems for their very survival.
A tiger in the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Photo credit: Rubaiyat Mansur Mowgli/WCS.
Recent scientific reports have shown that the extent of terrestrial and marine ecosystems that can be still be considered intact and ecologically functional is dwindling. Threats across the globe today are massive, and include habitat loss and devastation, illegal killing of wildlife and wildlife trafficking, illegal and unsustainable fishing, illegal and unsustainable timber trade, harmful development projects, climate change, and so much more.
The images of devastated landscapes devoid of their natural biodiversity, vast industrial-scale monoculture for commercial agriculture, and largely empty seas are becoming all too familiar and all too dominant. The consequences for biodiversity are clear: ever increasing numbers of species facing extinction and the degradation of the critical ecosystem services that underpin the very health of our planet and our own well-being.
In short, we are moving from a serious erosion of biodiversity to a serious ecological crisis that will impact all of us. And yet how many people know about this conference in Egypt? Or that between this meeting and the next conference in Beijing in 2020, the world will adopt new targets to set the course of biodiversity conservation for the next decade and beyond? But even as we endeavor to expand the constituency for this critical work, we cannot wait to take action.
The expansion of humanity’s footprint both on land and in the sea is staggering and ever-increasing. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.
More than anything, all of the governments here in Egypt must work and commit to save the Earth’s last intact places: the remaining boreal forests of Canada and Russia; the remaining tropical forests of Central Africa and the Amazon Basin; the remaining grasslands of Central Asia; and the remaining healthy coral reefs found in the tropical belt around the world to identify just some of the most critical biodiversity strongholds.
Just as urgently, we must secure the intact ecosystems and corridors between these place that are so critical for the maintenance of healthy, thriving populations of jaguars, elephants, tigers, sea turtles, parrots, whales, and so many other species threatened by the actions of people.
These intact forests, grasslands, coral reefs, and other intact landscapes and seascapes must be prioritized for many reasons, including because they are the most resilient to the impacts of climate change and increasing development pressures, and offer some of the greatest potential for protecting biological diversity for future generations.
Threats across the globe today include the illegal killing and trafficking of wildlife such as the pangolin. Photo credit: Lucie Escouflaire/WCS
I am excited to be here in Egypt to work through these issues with government officials from around the world, as well as other conservation organizations, indigenous peoples and local community representatives, and so many more. But I am very worried. This treaty, like all treaties, is made up of governments, and they are the ones making the decisions on behalf of all of the inhabitants of our beautiful and fragile planet—the only one we have.
Will the governments of the world talk but not act, show complacency, support business-as-usual, and squabble over minutiae? Or will they be ambitious and bold, and show true leadership and commitment to the future of a healthy planet? Will we be able to look back on this meeting as a watershed moment, when the governments of the world, through the CBD, truly committed to real conservation action, and to saving the magnificent, intact places on earth, for all of us?
Our children and future generations will ultimately be the judge, and they need our commitment, action, and leadership more than ever.
—————————————— Susan Liebermanis Vice President for International Policy at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).
Grasslands are the world’s most altered ecosystem, frequently being converted for cropping, pastures or urbanisation. When grasslands are transformed by humans, this often pushes out sensitive grassland birds, for example the Great Indian Bustard, now listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Fortunately some grassland birds, like the Eastern Meadowlark, are adaptive and can sustain relatively healthy populations in human altered landscapes. This week we feature 25 of the best photographs of grassland birds, from the threatened to the adaptive. Thank you to everyone who contributed photographs for this theme!
THIS STRIKING BIRD IS AN ABYSSINIAN GROUND HORNBILL, THEY STAND AT 1 METRE TALL (ADRIANA DINU)A flock of Black-breasted Weavers take flight. These birds are usually found along rivers with tall grass or reeds, exactly the materials they need to weave their nests (Gur Simrat Singh)A Brewer’s Blackbird photographed by Dot Rambin in Louisiana, USA. These birds used to occur mainly in woodland clearings and forest edges, but they have now also adapted to live in human-modified habitats, like farmlandsThis Crested Lark is incredibly well camouflaged in this dry grassy habitat in Haryana, India (Dalvinder Saini)A group of European Bee-eaters photographed in Northern Greece by Brigitte PetrasA Great Indian Bustard photographed in India’s desert national park. the Great Indian Bustard is critically endangered, one of the reasons for this is transformation of their grassland habitats (Suranjan Mukherjee)An Indian Stone-curlew strides across a dry grassland in Maharashtra, India (Prakash Chimad)A pair of Indian Peafowls in a grassy clearing in Aravali Biodiversity Park (India). This is an urban park, located in the city of Gurgaon. the park was restored from mining pits by local citizens and is now an important refuge for local wildlife (Hitesh Chawla)Southern Ground Hornbills frequent grasslands in search of invertebrate and vertebrate prey (Bhargavi Upadhya)A Rufous-vented Grass-Babbler moves nimbly among the reeds in Veerewala, India (Gagan Bedi)A Chipping Sparrow perched in a snowy grassland in New Jersey, USA (Anne Harlan)This beautiful bird is an Eastern Meadowlark, native to the grasslands and pastures of the Americas (Dot Rambin)A Eurasian Griffon feeds on a carcass in Rajasthan, India. These vultures help prevent disease by quickly and efficiently consuming carrion before it rots (Amit Kumar Srivastava)A glimpse of a female Greater Painted Snipe through some wetland grasses (Indranil Bhattacharjee)The raucous call of the Helmeted Guineafowl is one of the most distinctive calls heard in African savanas (Bhargavi Upadhya)An Indian Courser in a dewy pasture in Nagpur, India (Indranil Bhattacharjee)The Kori Bustard is the largest flying bird in Africa. This bustard was photographed in Borana Conservancy, Kenya by Adriana DinuA male Long-tailed Widowbird in full breeding plumage on the plains of south-western Kenya. These males aggressively protect their breeding territories during the breeding season (Sammy Mugo)Paddyfield Pipits prefer short grassy habitats as well as cultivated habitats like paddyfields (Goutam Mitra)Red-necked Spurfowls occur widely across sub-Saharan Africa (Owen Deutsch)A male Rain Quail doing his advertising call, A rather distinctive and melodic call (Indranil Bhattacharjee)A beautiful Rosy-throated Longclaw, photographed by Ganesh Rao in the Maasai Mara, KenyaThis Rufous-tailed lark is near-endemic to India (Preety Patel)A Secretarybird strides gracefully across grasslands of the Maasai Mara (Kenya), stalking prey (Kishore Reddy)Rufous-vented Grass-babblers can be found in the low-lying grasslands of Pakistan, northern India and nepal (Jasvir Faridkot)
Our mission is to build a global community around the freedom and beauty of birds in the wild as ambassadors for the natural ecosystems that they depend upon. They are the music, decoration, and character of every terrestrial habitat on the planet and have been around since the dinosaurs. They are the witnesses and ambassadors of the awesome power of nature. The wide availability of good, cheap optics has opened their world to us for the last few decades. Amazing, affordable DSLR cameras with long lenses are delivering brilliant digital bird imagery to online communities.
We are in a day-and-age during which more bird species are threatened with extinction than ever before. The Wild Birds! Revolution aims to publish the “Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week” to 1 million people every week by the end of the year. That is a revolution that will change the world! Join thousands of other weekend naturalists, photographers, birders, experts, hikers, nature-lovers, guides, scientists, conservationists and artists that share the thousands of wild bird photographs submitted to the Wild Bird Trust website and Facebook page. Thousands of wild bird enthusiasts are going out every day to photograph our planet’s beautiful birdlife. Pick up your camera, fill your bird feeder, open your heart, and join the Wild Birds! Revolution!!
Scraping sand grains and pebbles for nutrients, it has wandered the river bed for ten months. After hiding from predators under submerged rocks it is time to leave the safety of the river behind.
Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) collection site. PHOTO BY R. ISAÍ MADRIZ
Among the rarest species of insects in the world, Araucoderus gloriosus belongs to one of four primitive crane fly species found in South America. Is its rarity a result of what is happening?
Its instincts drive it in search of entangled root mats of marginal vegetation. For that, it must cross a hazardous field of exposed cobblestone. Its body is being pulled against the moist rocks. The unfamiliar sensation of gravity is sobering.
Devoid of legs, it pulls its heavy body forward with its mandibles.
Dawn enshrouds the river bank with a dense mantle of fog. There, not too far from the river’s edge, partially compressed between two fist-sized rocks, the putrid pupal remains of another of its kind is being consumed by scuttle fly larvae; an ominous sign of what lies ahead.
The chaotic arrangement of the rocks and the impoverished diatom film covering them, laid evidence of a violent recent flood, a humbling reminder of the power of the elements.
If it is to survive, the larva must hurry. The morning sun’s rays will soon dissipate the fog, exposing the migrating larva to predators.
It has begun. Hungry ground-dwelling birds scout the surface, while other small passerine birds circle above looking for an easy meal. Deadly parasitic wasps are in search of prey; their young will consume their host from the inside out.
The fourthmolt allowed the eyeless larva to develop light-metering primitive eyes, an elemental predatory avoidance tool.
Scanning Electron Micrograph of Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) larval head capsule. Photo by R. Isaí Madriz
Halfway from the marginal vegetation, it begins to burrow into the moist sand.
As I observe sitting motionless on top of a large rock I ask myself: Was the drastic behavior change triggered by the continuous sensation of morning rays? Is the larva aware of the constant danger from predators? Perhaps it senses imminent risk of desiccation.
As the day passes by I wait patiently. The night belongs to bizarre creatures. Found only in Patagonia, stoneflies over two inches in length are taking over the night. Emerging in mass, they invade the land in search of a safe place to complete their transformation to adulthood.
At last, the larva reached the entangled root mats of the marginal vegetation. It searches for a secure moist area to begin its transformation. Pupation is the most vulnerable stage in its life cycle.
Its larval skin has been shed. The thin and translucent pupal skin presents a unique view to its internal organs. Highly sensitive long hairs arranged in crucial areas of its body alert of changes in its surroundings.
Safe in the moist microhabitat, its clear skin darkens with the passing days. Within, its organs reorganize for the last time.
A few days pass by and the pupa’s skin is hardened, a promising indication of a successful metamorphosis
Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) pupa habitus ventral (left) and lateral (right)view. Illustration by R. Isaí Madriz
High above, recent snowfall failed to remain on the mountaintop. An unexpected flood engulfs the river bank, dislodging the pupa from its shelter. Trapped in the increasing current, the river gradient steepens, as whitewater fills the increasingly narrowing channel.
Unable to move its developing appendages, the pupa relies on buoyancy for survival. It must keep the two respiratory organs on its head above the water or it will drown.
Several hundred yards downstream, in a small foamy pool in the splash zone of a 20ft waterfall, a newly emerged adult male hangs on to the vertical side of a small rock, its discarded pupal skin floats among plant debris. With luck he will spread his wings for the first time.
Nearby, holding on to the exposed roots in the undercut riverbank, a female completes her metamorphosis. At the same time, hanging from the marginal vegetation, camouflaged by their exquisite coloration, males wait for receptive females to take flight.
The male at the base of the waterfall flies away in search of a warmer, drier place away from the cold mist. As I wade through the river, following the male’s path, I feel the soothing sensation of the sun warming my skin. The male’s adult body is being illuminated by the sun for the first time. Does he feel the same calming sensation as I do?
Its dull flight pattern and slow speed diversify, as the morning rays stimulate a graceful aerial dance revealed for the first time before my eyes. I stand motionless in the middle of the river, in awe. The exquisite wing pattern is complemented by an iridescent hue reflecting the sun’s rays. This fly is indeed glorious.
Stacked image of the Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) adult hanging from a Magellan’s beech (Nothofagus betuloides) branch. Photo by R. Isaí MadrizR. ISAÍ MADRIZ collecting A. gloriosus larvae. PHOTO BY Gregory R. Curler
In a blink of an eye the magic dissipates. The male is tackled out of the air and onto the overhanging vegetation by a dragonfly several times his size. The predator perches on a broad leaf a few feet away from where I stand. I watch in shock, as it slowly consumes the primitive crane fly, discarding the legs and wings as it gradually devours the thorax. Several thoughts run through my head: How does the fly process pain? Does he? What thoughts would be passing through the fly’s brain? Does he have any?
In the upcoming days little more is revealed of this species’ secretive adult behavior. The population size is a fraction compared to what it was two years prior. With adults becoming increasingly harder to find, their short adult life span and the ever-changing weather make the task at hand troublesome.
With the season passing, the adult population vanishes. It is cold, but the mountaintops have yet to retain any snowfall. Weather fluctuations turn what should be snow into rain, preventing accumulation of snow and consequently scouring the riverbed through the intensifying glacial melts that feed the river. Can this species survive the ongoing climatic challenges, or will it embrace the imminent fate of the bleeding glaciers that it fully depends on?
* The story above is an accurate assemblage of observed field events from 2013–2018 complemented by a scientific investigation on the species depicted.