Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Artistic impressions

Art in black and white is something that is always striking. In early times, when printing technology was still underdeveloped, the woodcut was the choice for illustration. Particularly interesting are the early illustrations of animals and plants. One of the earliest and best known examples of animal illustration printed using the woodcut technique was that of Albrecht Dürer. His rhinoceros of 1515 is something that has been widely written about. First done in ink (facing left) it was converted by the printmaking technique of the woodcut into a classic image (facing right due to the process by which it is made).

The BBC has a nice piece on the history of this rhinoceros and its significance.

Looking at the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in the 1840s gives one a good idea of how intricate the art of the woodcut had become by then. Print makers had moved from wood to limestone - using the technique of lithography. With colour washes and multiple impressions on paper they were able to produce colour prints or chromolithographs. The black areas were covered with wax or oil and the uncovered areas were treated with weak acid causing the areas to be depressed. The block was then painted using flat rollers and then pressed on to paper (once for black and white and multiple times for colour) to produce the prints. The process sometimes involved the use of a delineator, a colorist and a printer. One could argue about who among the three is the actual copyright owner here ! The process was expensive but the results were spectacular. The expense meant that journals like the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London had options for subscribers to opt for versions with or without the plates. One of the downsides of the technique was in the representation of molluscs and crabs which are often not bilaterally symmetric. Most snail shells, for instance, are coiled so that when the apex is above the aperture opens to the right - so called dextral and only the rare few have left-handed coils  (termed sinistral from which is derived the word sinister). Mirrored images aside, the masters of the art produced works that continue to have a life-like glow. Modern exponents like Robert Gillmor continue to produce such amazing works with modifications to this basic technique such as the Linocut.

Here is a sampling from the 19th century. Click on the images for viewing them in better resolution.

G. H. Ford
Ford seems to have specialized in black and white illustrations of reptiles and amphibians.

W. Mitchell

John Gerrard Keulemans (1842 - 1912)

Thriponax kalinowskii

Spilornis cheela pallidus

Calyptomena hosii

W. Purkiss

Ornithoptera victoriae

Joseph Wolf (1820 - 1899)

Anathana elliotti

Joseph Smit (1836 – 1929)
Note: Smit (and possibly his son Pierre) was responsible for many of the woodcuts that are used in the Fauna of British India (edition 1) and reused in the Fauna of British India (edition 2) as well as in Ali & Ripley's "Handbook".


Testudo trimeni

Frederic Moore (1830 - 1907)

Moore's greatest contribution to India was the Lepidoptera Indica, a work that he did not live to see to completion. Those who have seen the images in this work will not fail to be impressed. Most of the illustrations here were made by his son F. C. Moore. Moore senior also appears to have been artist, but it appears that considerable care is needed in identifying the works of the two. More than two hundred years later, the butterflies in his tomes seem almost ready to fly out of the pages.

All of the above images (and more by Gould, Richter, Hewitson, Westwood) are on the Wikimedia Commons image repository and being in public domain are ready for reuse in yet another century.

7 June 2011 - Found out that Frederic Moore's son was F. C. Moore
and the Biodiversity Heritage Library has completed the scanning of Lepidoptera Indica
The original scans are linked below
Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3 (copy of 3)
Volume 4 Volume 5 Volume 6 Volume 7
Volume 8 Volume 9 Volume 10

1 November 2011 - All the images from Lepidoptera Indica volumes 1 to 10 have been extracted and can be found under the following category on Wikimedia Commons

Further reading
* Allmon, WD (2007) The evolution of accuracy in natural history illustration. Archives of natural history 34 (1): 174–191.
* Terms and techniques

Monday, May 16, 2011

What-is-it bird

Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1851
One of the joys of working on Wikipedia is the way one stumbles on material. One of the foremost scientific illustrators of the Victorian Age was Joseph Wolf who made chromolithographs for many publications. T. C. Jerdon thought it must be a Sibia = Heterophasia . Dr Nicholson who proposes the bird as a new species does not even indicate the part of India where it was found (although a preceding note suggests he lived mainly in Surat, Kutch and nearabouts) ! He however notes the peculiar habit of using rodent holes :
These birds are only found in very thick jungles among the brushwood, where they are always moving about, and are shot with great difficulty, and even then, if not killed outright, they are so tenacious of life, that they creep into the first hole or crevice they come to. The only note I ever heard was like 'chick, chick.' I think they are residents, but the few I have seen just appear and are lost in a moment, so that I know little of their habits; the one figured here had one leg and both wings broken, and still crept into the hole of a jerboa-rat, from which I dug it out dead.
Length from bill to tip of tail 7 2/8 inches. Alar extent 10 inches. Head large. Bill strong, narrow and sharp, gently arched on the culmen; a distinct notch near the tip of upper mandible; gape wide. Tongue horny and divided at the point. Nostrils basal, small. Eye rather small. Iris of a silvery colour, tinged with yellow. Wings rounded; first quill very short; third longest; second, third and fourth quills emarginate on outer web.
Tail short, and nearly even at the end, of twelve feathers, 2 3/4 inches long.
Tarsus strong. Hallux and claw stronger than the other toes, and as long as the inner toe, and has a large pad at its base; the outer toe is shortest; the claws are much hooked. 
 Dr Nicholson (1851) Notes on a new species of Artamus, from India. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. June 1851:195-196.


According to another editor on Wikipedia, the bird is the Orphean Warbler, Sylvia hortensis crassirostris. So do Orphean Warblers use rodent holes ?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Life in the cracks and crevices

In the past, taking pictures was a challenge and most of our records were only textual notes that we exchanged when we met, and things have changed so much. For the old-time naturalists, photography has been more of a tool rather than an end and it is remarkable how good even the average photograph with a low-end digital camera is these days. One does regret not having these gizmos in the past. Most of these pictures were taken using a rather low-end aim-and-shoot digital camera (A 3.2 megapixel Nikon CoolPix E3700). Putting together these old pictures surprised me a bit especially to see the total volume of images which have a way of accumulating rapidly. out of control. Fortunately I release most of my images under creative commons licenses and include notes and metadata. Posting them on Wikimedia Commons, allows me to keep notes and categorize them while many get identified or go through revisions when group experts find them and these images  take a life of their own, making their way into books and newspapers with enquiries landing at your desk from around the world. The benefit to illustrate Wikipedia articles naturally does not need explication and such material is longer lived than the average blog, personal  or even organizational website. Anyway, here is a random assortment of free critter images (read that as you may) that have visited and live alongside. None of these are rare (in Bangalore) and are probably right around your home as well.
Ramanella variegata

A couple of years ago we had Ramanella variegata breeding in our water sump - one of these pretty frogs had a favourite PVC tube into which he would croak like a Tuvan throat singer in the mornings. The acoustics inside the tube were perhaps enjoyable, although some studies on frogs have suggested that males might try to cheat in the competition for mates by choosing locations where they sound mightier.  Unfortunately,  these frogs have not turned up this year even after the first few rains but still look forward to having these pretty residents breeding around.
Scanning you with advanced spectrometry
Jumping spiders are lynx eyed although the term "lynx spider" is used for the Oxyopidae. They turn around to take a close look at you but the most interesting times are when they meet others. That is when you see them wave their palps and forelegs in well defined semaphore patterns. They have extremely sharp vision and are said to have the ability to distinguish colours (extending to UV) and detect polarization as well. One rather fascinating species named Bagheera kiplingi is even thought to break from the basic spider characteristic in being herbivorous.

Heterorrhina elegans - no green pigment
The rainy weather brings numerous insects that have a short breeding period. These include brilliant beetles that have led the largest part of their lives underground as curly white grubs. Some can appear in rather large numbers especially when they swarm at chosen trees. Among these are the emerald green scarabs. It is amazing that they have evolved such cuticular microstructures that produce green colours entirely without the need for specific pigments. 

A change in the angle of lighting turns emerald to gold. The colour is produced by diffracting incident light, amplifying some frequencies, decimating others and letting only a part reach your eye. Naturally lots of people want to be able to replicate such microstructures for applications in human life such as for car exteriors but that would not be much of an innovation as it would still be for attracting mates.

A lycid beetle
I never seem to get the Lycidae identity right at first go. These rather soft-bodied beetles are found mainly on plants. As adults some are thought to feed on nectar or not to feed at all. The larvae are predaceous and bear a strong resemblance to the larvae of the firefly beetles and their rather primitive appearance has given them the name of "trilobite larva". The Lycidae belong to the same groups as the click-beetles and the thorax ends in a sharp point in this particular specimen although it does not function as in the click-beetles for flipping them back on their legs.

Camponotus sericeus under a rock
The space under pots and stones is  great for species that need a well regulated temperature and humidity.  Here one can often find numbers of land crustaceans, annelids and insects. This colony of ants lived in the space below a rock. The queen was apparently somewhere and the workers at the centre were taking care of larvae and pupae. The entire nest is just planar and in the narrow space, perhaps ideal as a study species.

Myrmicaria brunnea at sugar lick
Some ants have a taste for sugar - Myrmicaria brunnea - apparently just cannot resist it. A little water around a crystal of sugar attracts them in droves and they line up along the edge of the sweet waterholes and lap them up. Their sweet tooth leads them to harvest honeydew secreted by bugs. Apparently most members of the genus hold the gaster facing downwards as evident in the picture.

Mantis nymph (2 mm long)
Ants are so successful that numerous other tiny insects have evolved to appear like them. This effectively keeps away predators, and even tiny predators at like this nymph of a mantis are at risk. These are not the only ant like predators. Invariably to be found running on the wall, are also the ant mimic spiders.

Delias eucharis
Flying insects tend to be more interesting, as they can come in from much further off and are not dependent on the food resources within your home. This Common Jezebel butterfly Delias eucharis appears to be freshly emerged. The larvae breed on the parasitic mistletoe plants, the trees around my home are devoid of mistletoe, so it is a bit of a mystery.

Wasp possibly Phimenes sp.
Potter wasps are beautifully marked. Despite their distinct colours, the taxonomy of the Indian species is uncertain. I recently found one picking up clay from an older nest for use in a fresh nest. A leaky tap or a watery patch in the soil is a great attraction for them.

Camponotus with micro-livestock
A recent outbreak of scale insects led to a number of species of plants being covered in scales. These scale insects suck up fluid from the plants and share their secretions with ants. The ants keep away predators and move the scales around to new plants leading to a rather effective utilization of the vegetation by the ants.

Spalgis epius
But the defence by ants of these scale insects does not seem to be perfect. Their livestock, sooner or later become the target of pathogens, parasitoids and predators. One of the predators of these scales is, rather surprisingly, the caterpillar of a butterfly called the apefly. The name comes from the appearance of its pupa.

Platynotus excavatus doing a headstand
Coming down to ground level introduces us to a number of other visitors.  This Tenebrionid beetle was on the ground in the typical posture that many take. Some species in the Namib desert, adopt this posture termed as "fog-basking" to let moisture condense on their elytra. Some species even have ridges along the sides that lead the drops of water right to their mouths. The idea has even been adopted in some parts of the world to squeeze water out of the morning breeze to meet the water needs of people. Perhaps this beetle has something to offer for thirsty Bangalore.

The identification of insects is tricky and it takes a long while to orient oneself with the basic groupings and things get better over time.  Many thanks are due to the faculty and friends, especially Prof. C. A. Viraktamath, at the department of entomology at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore for many of the species level identifications above.