Sunday, February 28, 2010

The book has arrived

A couple of years ago, an editor from Bearport Publishing in New York contacted me about using one of the photos in my Flickr site ( for their next book. It was one of my earliest photos of a giant trapdoor spider, therefore the photo was not really that nice. I seriously think that it was close to reject quality but I published it on my Flickr for sentimental sake. But it was also special as it showed the spider bolting out from the burrow, although I did not do a good jood at capturing it in an artistic manner. As I said, it was one of my earlierst encounter with such magnificent creature.

Beaport Publishing makes children books. For several reasons I did not ask for monetary payment and allowed them to use the photo for that book. This was under the impression that the book will help to educate the young generations on appreciating nature and dispel the myth of spiders being evil creatures as depicted in some popular folklore. They agreed to send me some complementary copies once the book is published. Unfortunately there was some delay in the process and I just received them last week.

Now here how the front page looks like.

This is where the give credits.

The photo is in page 11, showing an example of a trapdoor spider with silk threads radiating from the burrow.

Coincidentally I will be visiting the very site of where I took the photo very soon. I don’t know if it makes any sense for me to bring the book there and show the celebrity spider that her face is registered in the Library of Congress and distributed worldwide. It is exciting to imagine if she understands all those but on second thought I believe what she really appreciate is a quite life away from human intrusion.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Pale Spitting Spider, Scytodes pallida.

Of the 69 families of spider found in South East Asia, several of them possess very interesting characteristics such as the ability to catch fish, mimic other animals or blend so well with the surrounding. Yet one of the most remarkable ability belongs to the Scytodidae family which is range attack.

Known as the spitting spider, scytodid is quite common in Malaysia. The can be found in primary and secondary forests and even near human dwellings. A few weeks ago I had one individual crawling next to my PC keyboard before vanishing between the junks on my table. But the best place to find one is probably secondary forests where I had most encounters. It is pretty common in Bukit Kiara arboretum near Kuala Lumpur and I found quite a number in Hutan Lipur Soga Perdana in Batu Pahat.

Now a bit about the anatomy of the spitting spider. While most spiders have 8 eyes, the scytodid has only 6. There are less than 10 families of spider with 6 eyes which also include the common daddy long legs (Pholcidae). Generally 6-eyed spiders are nocturnal and hunt at night but I have seen several individuals which hunt during the day.

In one occasion I was blessed with the opportunity to witness a spitter attacking a jumping spider. It crawled slowly to the prey and fired several jet of glue until the jumping spider was immobilized. Then it moved slowly behind the prey to deliver a bite at the limbs. This is a series of photos I took of the action. Since I just happened to stumbled upon this scene, there was no time to do proper camera setup and to record everything. I wish I captured the glue trail flying from the spitter’s fangs to the prey but that may be too much to wish for.

The first attack is by glueing the enemy.

Then the bite at a more secured part of the enemy's body.

OK, not I'm sure what's the intention here, perhaps injecting digestive enzymes.

Some species of spitting spiders tend to make human house as habitat. They prey on moths, silverfish and other small insects in the house. This can be beneficial and perhaps welcomed in homes. As pest predator, spiders are very effective and most of the time avoid being visible to human. Several houses in a village I visited in fact welcomed spiders and the villagers did not even clean the webs at the ceiling of their houses. I also noticed that while there were mosquitoes outside the house, the interior was virtually free from blood suckers and cockroaches. Seems like both human and the spider have established a symbiotic relationship.

Are they dangerous to human? I suppose a single cockroach is a lot more hazardous in many ways- eating our food and leave their droppings everywhere. Spiders keep this kind of house pest at bay and they have no business with our food or sucking our blood like mites. The fact that they are hunters means that the spitting spiders do not weave any web except as a retreat, usually when nesting. At the cost of making our house looks unkempt, they are the free pest control agents who hunt relentlessly.

Retreat is made by curling the tip of a leaf. Somehow they like that kind of leaf.

Another interesting behaviour of S. pallida is the mother carries the eggs with her jaw. She would build a retreat by curling a leaf and stay there until the eggs hatch. Maternal care of the eggs is crucial to avoid mould infection on the eggs as well as protecting it from predators. But by being encumbered, the mother herself is vulnerable and consequently becomes the prime target for predators such as the jumping spider Portia labiata which prefers to attack spiders with eggs. To offset this advantage, S. pallida has a remarkable anti-predator mechanism where upon sensing the presence of P. labiata (by the chemical cues from its drag line), a mother S. pallida can shorten the embryonic period of the eggs and make them hatch faster. While this may cause higher mortality rate among the hatchlings, the mother will then be free to protect herself and the surviving spiderlings with her defensive spitting.

A mother will carry and protect the eggs at the cost of her life.

The Pale Spitting Spider has a wide distribution across the South East Asia with records in Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and up to Papua New Guinea.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Batik Orb-weaver Nephila antipodiana

With a leg span of up to 6 inches and body length up to 1.5 inches, this is one of the largest orb-weavers in the world. The sight of such huge spider with a web of 1 meter in diameter can be intimidating for some people but otherwise would simply instill awe and admiration. Because of their large size and the fact that they live in even larger webs, meeting one of them is not really that difficult. The Nephila antipodiana is in fact a rather common spider in places of moderately high altitude and cool temperature.

Newly hatched N. antipodiana spiderlings. The nest is in between branches near the web.

A juvenile female.

A Nephila antipodiana following a successful moult.

This is a really big momma. I say that because the size of the female is much larger than the male. It is like comparing a goat and a full grown elephant, and I am not referring to the imported boer. In some webs the males can be seen lurking at the edges, feeding on smaller insects that got trapped but ignored by the female. He might have to compete with the cunning argyrodes, commonly known as dewdrop spiders, which also make a female nephila web as their dining hall.

The smaller male is trying to mate with the female below. Mating can take quite a while.

These little dewdrop spiders are easiest to be found in webs of larger spiders. Several argyrodes species have been found to make a living from looting a nephila’s web. Such behaviour is known as kleptoparatism and studies have indicated that a web with too many argyrodes can severely retard the growth of a nephila. The host sometimes chases them away but most of the time they got to the prey faster and cut part of the web silk away to mask the prey’s vibration. Although argyrodes is of similar size and can be of similar colours to the male nephila, both can be easily distinguished from the body shape where the latter has a flatter abdomen.

A matured male waiting at the edge of a female's web.

There are 2 other nephila species I have found in Malaysia- N. pilipes and N. kuhlii. The webs are almost similar except that N. antipodiana usually has a second or third screen web of slightly different mesh pattern and sort of curved away from the main web where the spider resides. Sometimes several nephila webs area attached together creating a complex of mega webs like a massive fortress. I have heard accounts of small forest birds being snared in such formidable structures.

The range of this spider is wide with records ranging from China to New Zealand. They make webs almost anywhere possible- between branches, telephone cables, open ceilings and fences. Because they are huge and look menacing, I imagine it can easily cause discomfort to most people whenever a nephila is seen nearby human habitat. The natural tendency of most human behaviour is to expel the spider or kill it. This is unnecessary as orb weavers are generally gentle spiders and does not attack human, however gruesome they may look. A population of nephila in any neighborhood will reduce several kinds of pest insects which have been shown in several studies related to biological control of crop pest. Their huge webs and the tendency to cluster create a formidable defense against medium and large flying insects. For the smaller flyers, the males and argyrodes will take care of them.

A female coming out from a moult.

Some time recently a group of people in Madagascar made a fabric out of the silk of a nephila species local to that region. It took 4 years to collect and weave an 11’ x 4’ textile from the extraction of a million spiders. By weight, spider silk is stronger than steel and can stretch up to 40% of its length without breaking. It is interesting to know the extent of spider silk in science and industry which scientist believe can lead to revolutionary materials. But unlike silk worms they cannot be raised in captivity without them cannibalizing one another.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How I shoot spiders part 1: Tools and settings

There are not that many things that I do when shooting macro that other people don’t. Even my equipment is pretty standard and cheap. Therefore there is really nothing extraordinary that I did to produce the photos here. So some wise guy would then ask, “Then why your photos look so nice?” My answer would be, “because the subject is nice looking.’

In most of my macro shots, where most is something like 98%, I use the standard same equipment- an Olympus E-500, a Zuiko Digital 35mm f/3.5 macro lens and an FL-50 flash. Frankly I am not really fussy about the flash but the FL-50 was chosen because of its fast recycle rate and I was not introduced to any other Four-Thirds compatible flash yet at that time. The E-500 is an ancient model, born in 2005 and considered obsolete a long time ago. It was one of the earliest DSLR by Olympus and was among the cheapest in the market. The lens is also the cheapest macro lens you can buy where most shops sell between RM780 to RM800. It is goes to 1:1 magnification (2:1 on full frame equivalent) and responds well with auto focus. The output is pretty decent too as you may have noticed since reading this blog.

Since this is not a gear review session so let’s move on to something more photography-centric. See, Olympus uses the Four-Thirds system therefore the focal length of the lens doubled, i.e. a 50mm lens will become 100mm on an Olympus DSLR. This will also affects the calculated depth of field at any given aperture, which is similar to how APS camera is different to full frame cameras. Basically the depth of field of a certain aperture on a Four-Third camera is 2 stops wider than that on a full frame camera which is good news to macro shooters. A light DSLR body is usually more desirable since this makes it easy to be handled with one hand, which sometimes I have not choice but to do.

There are many tricky technical challenges when shooting macro. Firstly is that you need to get the right amount of depth of field. Too shallow and you will miss some important part of the picture. Too deep then your main subject will not stand out but this is rarely the case since in the macro world, depth of field is a scarce commodity. I usually shoot between f/9 to f/14 which is enough for most cases. APS-C needs to add by 1 stop and full frame by 2 stops to follow my rule of thumb. If you need more depth of field, step back a bit to increase your working distance or just use smaller aperture until you are satisfied. The issue with very small aperture is reduced exposure and softness due to diffraction. If you are not certain where to place things into focus, just make sure the nearest eye has to be tack sharp.

Get the important part of the story in focus. Forget the less important details, as in this photo, the end of the legs.

Next is to control the lighting. You don’t want to use direct flash since the exoskeleton of arthropods is reflective. Do that and you will lose plenty of details due to blown highlights everywhere. So what we do is to either diffuse it, bounce it or both. I cut a piece of corrugated white board to be used as a bouncer and put a sheet of photocopy paper as my diffuser. Find a way to mount those things and do some trials to see how it works best. My FL-50’s TTL works well and with my D.I.Y bouncer/diffuser setting, I set it to -0.7 EV most of the time. Nowadays I usually set it to manual mode due to some fault with the aged flash.

I don’t care much about shutter speed since I am using a flash. Just set to the highest sync speed and that’s it. Sometimes I reduce the speed a bit to capture some ambiance light since I dislike having a black background which is normally what you will get when relying on flash for the only source of light with no bright object behind the subject. If you do this, make sure the camera is held steady either by using a tripod, image stabilizer or in my case, tai chi.

Taken with flash fired at maximum shutter sync. This makes distant background black.

Slow the shutter a bit, open up aperture or boost up ISO and you will get a more natural background. Make sure the flash is not too harsh.

The rest of other settings are pretty much standard. Keep ISO to 100 so the image is clean but if you lose out details in shadowed area then just double it up as long the image is not smeared with noise. Metering mode is usually set as center weighted average as it seems to give good and consistent readings for TTL calculation. What else… oh, I usually set the white balance to 5000K to match the color temperature of my flash. If you shoot in raw, which I seldom do, the white balance can be adjusted later. The rule of thumb is simply to get the colors to be as natural as you can.

A bit about shooting raw or jpg here since there have been quite a number of people asking me why I tend to use jpg instead of raw. First of all, I am too lazy to do all the adjustment in Adobe Camera Raw. Secondly even if I have the time, I don’t really know what I should do. Thirdly I think the jpg output from my camera is good enough in most cases without the need for raw tweaking. The only time I use raw is when the light is so tricky that I may have to interfere more than I wish. For insurance I set my camera to save the image in both raw and jpg although 90% of the time I work only with the jpg copy.

See, macro photography is not really that tough, at least on the technical side. Do give it a try.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Spider survey: Gunung Nuang

I went climbing Gunung Nuang on the 30th January 2010. The mission is to survey the spider diversity in that area and to stretch my legs a bit. Since the climb to Gunung Bunga Buah last year I haven’t done much climbing except for the regular trailing when doing spider hunt. This time I am going to a new area.

At 1493m, Gunung Nuang is the highest peak in Selangor and rated by many as the 5th toughest mountain to climb in the peninsular. I read several blogs about this mountain and many said it is a 6-hour climb. What I missed is that they climb with minimal encumbrance. I, on the other hand, hauled a 10kg cargo on my back to attempt a trail with many steep stretches. Long steep stretches. Very long, very steep stretches.

My two guides are my friends from the Silat Gayong circle, Hafiz and Suraya. They both have climbed many mountains and Suraya has climbed in Indonesia and Vietnam before. I am confident that I will be in good hands with such sporting and experienced climbers. What I fear most is my left knee which always gives me problems every time I climb. The trip to Gunung Bunga Buah last year was filled with never ending agony since the first hour due to my knee issue. Hence I bought a 40+10L Deuter bag in uptown Shah Alam which is more ergonomics than my old bag bought in a supermarket. No, it’s not the RM300+ bag but the ayam-grade one.

In order to survey the spider population, I planned to have the trip covering both day and night trekking. My travel kit includes the trusty Olympus E-500, Zuiko Digital 14-45mm, Zuiko Digital 35mm macro, FL-50 flash, loads of spare batteries (which I eventually didn’t use) and 4BG+2BG CF cards. I also brought along a handheld torchlight, one that can slit to cap and a headlight. Including a sleeping bag, spare clothing, water and other stuff, my bag weights about 10kg which is kind of insane for a first time climber to the infamous Gunung Nuang.

2-3 hours (depending on how often you stop) of this kind of walk.

It's like never ending.

Suraya picked me up and we drove to the ranger office where the journey starts. Climbing started at 4.20pm and went through a 5km up and down trail to the mountain foot. Along the trail I notice a long horn spider Gasteracantha Arcata, a pastured Polybius vulpine, some other araneids, tetragnathids and of course lycosids. The gruesome walk ends at an old dam which later leads to Kem Lolo where many hikers camp by the stream. We arrived there at about 7pm and stopped for dinner. The menu was rice with sambal ikan bilis and tea using leaves as plates.

Dinner was great when you're dead tired.

At about 9pm we started hiking uphill through the forest trail in the dark. The weather was very good that night and it was full moon. Since we plan to refill our bottle at Kem Pacat, we did not bring a lot of water from Lolo, just enough for the journey to the next check point. Now the trail was becoming steeper and it’s uphill all the way. With such heavy encumbrance, we stopped for rest almost every 15 minutes. At midnight we reached Kem Pacat and were exhausted completely.

Kem Pacat is a small plateau along the uphill trail. There are actually some neat things there- kangkung, tapioca and turmeric plants. A water point is located somewhere off the trail, about 15 minutes down on the left side when going up but since it was dark, we could not find it. We took a short break and everyone ended up taking out their sleeping bags. We took a short nap and woke up at 3am. At this stage we have to decide whether to proceed or not. Suraya seems attached to her sleeping bag but me and Hafiz insisted on continuing the hike. We resumed at 3.45am, hiking under the stars.

The route to Puncak Pengasih (the false peak) was extremely exhausting and even steeper. There were places to step but many times I have to push myself up and propel by tugging roots or tree trunks. After what seems like an eternity we reached Puncak Pengasih probably around 6am. The area was damp and it was precipitating heavily that we took out our poncho for a while.

At Puncak Pengasih (on the way back).

The next step is to descend to the valley before the final climb to the summit. Cold, hungry, tired and lack of sleep, we braced through the final part of the journey. Part of the track was muddy and slippery but we were too tired to worry about any form of modesty. At this point my legs felt like water and the last 1 hour was nothing short of sheer agony. Even to take 1 step forward/upward took me about 4-5 seconds due to extreme fatigue and to make matter worse, my water supply ran dry. At one point I and Hafiz took a short break and we both dozed off while sitting. Yes, that tiring.

Somewhere near the summit.

We noticed the sun coming up and light rays starts to fill the surroundings. Reaching the summit was clocked at 7.50am where all of us were so relief beyond belief. There was no single encounter with leech and no one got injured. I have to say that at the top of Gunung Nuang the scene was very tranquil and cold. Occassionally we got strong wind which makes drinking hot tea so heavenly. I gave a second thought on writing about the journey back as this entry is already quite long and overdue.

OK, in short we started the descend at 100pm and reached the ranger office at 9.00pm. We made 2 stops totalling about 3 hours at Kem Pacat and Kem Lolo for water refill and prayers. It was probably a bliss that we climbed at night since when we can actually look at how the path was, I was wondering if I would ever attempt the climb in full sanity.

Here are some images at the peak and between Puncak Nuang and Puncak Pengasih on the way back.

One of the things that marks the summit.

We started our descend at 1.00pm and it was still misty.

The path down from Puncak Nuang to Puncak Pengasih.

Trailing like this for hours? You gotta be insane!

The valley between Puncak Nuang and Puncak Pengasih.

The muddy stretches. Only girls use walkings stick.

As for the spider survey mission, we were too occupied with fatigue that I did not do the proper survey as I planned. Perhaps I will go there again one day when I am more physically prepared.

Families encountered: Salticidae, Lycosidae, Pisauridae, Sparassidae, Zodariidae, Clubionidae, Tetragnathidae, Araneidae, Theridiidae, Oxyopidae.