Sunday, 23 June 2019

Whitfield State School ELF Day

Whitfield State School, Cairns
Click on photos to enlarge

Local educator Peter Shanahan displays his collection several times a year to schools, public events and the like in the Cairns area. The diversity of insects always attracts attention.

He especially likes showing it to young children and stressing the importance of insects. He usually starts by asking "who likes insects"? Almost all raise their hands.
Then he tells them of the importance of insects, noting pollination, decomposition and the fact that so many organisms rely on insects for their food.

Of course there is an element of fun too.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019


It was sad to hear of the the death of Densey Clyne. She was a naturalist and wonderful writer and "champion of the underbug" as she called herself. Her photography was second to none and a highlight of her many books. 

Densey has been mentioned several times over the course of this blog:

Her most recent book "My Encounters with Minibeasts- from Purple Moonbeams to Itchy Cows" was published just last year.

I had the pleasure to describe a new genus of katydid in the endemic Australian subfamily Zaprochilinae, Anthophiloptera dryas Rentz and Clyne many years ago.

Sunday, 24 March 2019


Click on the photos to enlarge

Sandra Ross sent me copies of 2 books that she arranged to have published after the death of her husband, Edward S Ross a few years ago.

A Brief Diversion

Any Californian entomologist my age who visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco would know Ed Ross. He was an icon of the Academy. In the "old" Academy, his office was strategically placed so that all visitors to the department had to go past his open door. If he was there, and he usually was, you had to stop and "there went the morning"!

Ed was born in the state of Washington and was a superb artist as well as a biologist. He moved to the Bay Area and did all of his graduate work at UC Berkeley. At the time that the Entomology Division was impressive with many scientists doing research in many diverse fields of entomology. Following this period, Ed joined the US Army and was sent to the Pacific where he was involved with mosquito control. There he began a career of extraordinary insect collecting. How he managed to collect thousands of insect specimens from war zones and prepare them for the Academy collection is amazing. Those specimens are all in the CAS and many have become types of new species. Ed was a pioneer in the design of appropriate field vehicles. See the several he designed in his autobiography:

But I digress. I first met Dr Ross when I was about 12 yrs old when my father took me up to the Dept of Entomology on the suggestion of Bob Dempster who was in the Ichthyology Dept. He and my father and my uncles were all members of the San Francisco Aquarium Society. We always had aquaria around the house and I still maintain that hobby. At that meeting my father told Ed that I had a more than average interest in insects and what should we do about it? Ed said we will put him to work now. I then joined Paul Opler and another fellow transferring butterflies in envelops into more permanent accommodation in the collection. Paul and I have remained friends over the years but have not seen each other for several decades.

Ed became very influential in my life. He suggested to my mother that I should take up photography and that I should start out at "a professional level". No cheap cameras for me! My first camera was and Ashahi-Pentax with a close-up lens.

I have always been attracted to orthopteroid insects. This I attribute to my grandmother who used to collect with me at our summer place in Rio Nido, north of San Francisco. She made my first insect net from a "landing net" she had for fishing. I recall is had a collapsable rim and an extension that allowed me to get to the Tiger Swallowtails that were high in the mulberry bushes. It was also useful in netting the Platylyra katydids that landed on the house, attracted to the lights.

The attraction of orthopteroid insects was nurtured at the Academy by the array of US and foreign specimens Ed had collected. Ed once remarked on his way out the4 door on one of his many collecting trips in South America,  that he wished someone would take up the study of the Orthoptera. So with the aid of Don MacNeill and Jacques Helfer I began to study Orthoptera in earnest. That's where it all began.

When I was about 13 Ed's classic book, Insects Close Up came out.
My very worn copy of the book. Later when he visited Australia, he autographed it.

This book was destined to become a classic. It was one of the first that dealt with insect photography. He had wonderful material, mostly local Californian species, and he had sections on how to photograph them and make a collection. And remember, he made photographs the hard way. His black and whites were developed in the dark room at home or at the Academy. All the colour material was made with Kodachrome film. He was convinced that Kodachrome was the best film ever made. As a result I never took a photo with anything else. He did not like the colours in Ektachrome, so I never used it. As for the others, well we never used them. Those old Kodachrome slides survive to this day. About 20 years ago I was involved with make a CD-Rom, "Insects-A World of Diversity". I included a photo of a skipper he had taken more than 50 years prior. The colours were just as the should have been- and this was before Photo Shop! (Another aside! in looking through Insects Close Up I see on p. 70 in his photo of a collection, a katydid that I later described. Neduba extincta is just below the "Orthoptera" label. )

Ed was aware of the "digital generation" that was rapidly approaching. But as far as I am aware he stayed away from it saying he was just "too old" to take it on. But he knew it was the way of the future and photography would never be the same as he knew it.

Insects and Plants is a wonderful pictorial adventure illustrating the wide range of insects, their habits and their role in the scheme of things. Western US entomologists will recognise many of the photos having seen them in any of the many talks Ed gave to the Pacific Coast Entomological Society, the California Academy of Sciences and the Explorer's Club of San Francisco. I recall many Saturday afternoons at the Academy where Ed was featured showing slides of his recent trip to the Amazon, Africa or India. The our talk always lasted twice that long with many asides and to overflow audiences.

Ed trips lasted for months. He usually went off salary but was supported by the National Geographic, Explorer's Club as well as wealthy friends like Van Davis. I recall accompanying him down to the docks on SF Bay where he picked up his field vehicle returning from India. I can still remember that "odd smell" on the ship which was from the tons of copra that was being imported for processing. The main stated purpose of all his trips was to survey for the Embioptera--the web-spinning insects. These insects occur on tree trunks or under rocks. It did not matter if Ed collected many or few specimens. He developed a way of rearing the insects so that a few or even a few eggs would develop into a colony of hundreds of individuals. He collected samples of the webbing which inevitably contained eggs. He would tease the webbing into vials which would be sent by air back to the Cal Academy where the redoubtable, ever-faithful Peter Rubtzoff, would put them into culture. They discovered that dried leaves of the California Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia, was the perfect growth medium for the web-spinners. They thrived on it. Thousands of cultures were maintained and harvested at the Academy over the years. On all of his trips, a young entomologist accompanied Ed with the sole purpose of collecting insects. The result is hundreds of thousands of insect specimens in the CAS collection, many destined to become types. Visitors were invited to "go collecting" amongst the thousands of unmounted specimens.

Insects and Plants uses Ed's wonderful photographs to illustrate many aspects of insect ecology in a way that has not been done before. And this was in the era before digital photography so everything had to done correctly or there was no result. It was not easy to have film developed in some the places Ed & Sandy visited. But somehow he got it right!

Ed always had an interest in the cultures of the people in the countries he visited. He envisaged a major treatise on the many peoples he photographed. He provided National Geographic and other major publications with articles and beautiful photographs.

In 1970 Ed and Sandra Ross visited Afghanistan. Even though the country had been invaded for hundreds of years, this was a time of relative peace. Afghanistan at Peace is the result. His and Sandra's photos reveal what a wonderful place it was before all the bombing. You can tell from the photos that the people seemed happy and productive. The landscapes and monuments are spectacular to say the least. The photos (mostly of men because women should not be photographed) capture the serenity of a poor but beautiful country. This is an account of what it was in the 70's in Afghanistan. Who would have known what was to come?

The Insects and Plants book can be ordered from Bioquip.
The Afghanistan at Peace book can be ordered from:

Sunday, 17 March 2019

recent visitors

Click on the images to enlarge
Must be the season for visitors
This peahen has been around the garden for the past week. It comes right up to the door and would come into the house if it got the opportunity. Imagine the kerfuffle with a bird this size flying around the house. It has happened with Brush Turkeys and an open door!

I saw something scamper across the turkey's mound and went over to investigate and this fellow hopped onto an adjacent tree. It's a Boyd's Forest Dragon, Hypsilurus boydii. It's been a long time since I have seen one of these on the property, see

But look carefully.
There were actually two! How lucky. But I haven't seen them since!

What's this high in the Jakfruit tree?
It's a striped possum in its glory--inside a rotting jakfruit. See: These animals feed on a variety of foods and can be heard in the trees when they find something of interest. They are usually very wary.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Cassowary Update

After a few weeks absence, the male cassowary and his 2 chicks made an appearance.
Mr Cassowary, 40+ yrs old!

 The bubs are doing well. Note the developing wattles and the casque. 

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Heads Up

Remember to click on the photo to enlarge

A close-up look at the heads of many insects suggest their function---sometimes, but not always.
Tiger Beetles, Carabidae, Cicindelinae, are not named for tiger-like stripes but for their predaceous habits. Most are diurnal and patrol stream and lake shores where they hawk smaller insects. Not all have such habits, see. In north Queensland several species perch on leaves and tree trunks and lie in wait for unsuspecting prey.

Other beetles like the long-horn Rosenbergia megalocephala, possess powerful mandibles that can deliver a painful bite, but that is not their primary function. These beetles are wood borers and require strong mandibles to tear into rotting wood to lay their eggs.
Rosenbergia megalocephala is a fairly common visitor to the lights in the rainforests of Kuranda.
It is a stunning large beetle and a favourite amongst beetle collectors.
The mandibles are massive and flattened for scooping and tearing. Massive muscles provide these beetles with effective defence as most beetle collectors can confirm.
The giant longhorn, Xixuthrus microcerus, is amongst the largest of long-horns in the far north of Australia. It is fairly common and capable of a very effective bite. The elytra are very flexible and if the collector (or other predator) is unwary, the beetle can easily rotate its body and deliver a stunning bite. 

Lymexylid beetles often come to the light sheet at night. They can be found during the day in leaf litter or, more rarely, at flowers. This one is in the genus Melittomma. Larvae of some species tunnel in decaying wood and feed on associated fungi. The stains that result cause the timber to be worth less to the industry and the beetles are consideered pests. 
The mouthparts are very small and somewhat retracted into the head.
Lymexylid mouthparts are small compared to many other beetles.

Stag beetles (Lucanidae) are so-called because of their large mandibles. In males the mandibles are not used for wood-boring but in jousting with rivals for females. 

Ryssonotus nebulosus males are impressive. The internal surface of each mandible is lined with brown hairs. This beetle has been found to breed in introduced willows as well as several native Australian trees. 

The most iconic of Queensland beetles is Phalacrognathus muelleri. The length and development of mandibles varies in males. The individuals with the largest mandibles are said to be "preferred" by females. 

New Book

It's a bit of an odd coincidence that two books dealing with the photography of Australian insects have been published in the last 6 months with "Minibeasts" in the title. Both authors were completely unaware what the other was doing.

The latest book on "Minibeasts" is authored by Alan Henderson who together with his wife Deanna own a the Minbeasts Wildlife business operating out of Kuranda, Qld.

Alan's book is based on Australian insects with a few examples added from their time in Costa Rica. Like Densey Clyne's book, see, the photography is excellent. Both authors are superb photographers. Alan's book also includes stunning photos of spiders, millipedes and other invertebrates. Many of the subjects have never been photographed before. The photos alone are worth the price of the book but the book contains a great deal of information. Each chapter portrays a topic whether it be the role of colour in insects, creatures looking after their offspring or the host of predators and recyclers in the fauna of leaf litter. This book is a wonderful addition to the naturalist's library, published by Exisle, Chatswood, NSW, $29.95.