From the lens of a veterinarian: The little critters in the rainforest


Veterinarian and wildlife photographer spotlights wondrous insects, arachnids, and amphibians on Borneo Island

When people think of Borneo, one of the first things that comes to mind is the large primates like the orangutan. Borneo is also home to much smaller critters, including the many thousands of insect species that are just as fascinating and far more numerous. It is suspected that each one of the vast number of trees in Borneo can support up to 1,000 species of insects.

On our boat ride up the Sekonyer river to Camp Leakey, we encountered a praying mantis, confirming just how fascinating the world of arthropods is. Coming across a mantis is not surprising in the rainforest. What was surprising is how Zen it was in our presence.

This fascinating carnivorous insect was probably looking for an easy meal, using us to facilitate this as we moved through the rainforest on our boat. You might even call this a “symbiotic” relationship!

It happened when we were “klotoking” our way to Camp Leakey. We were all minding our own business, watching the rainforest go by, when a praying mantis (also called the Borneo stick mantis) decided to crash our party. The mantis landed on Jade’s head, one of the women in our group. Thankfully, Jade loves insects—a good attitude to have when you are going into the rainforest—and didn’t bat an eye. I was glad I had my macro (close-up) lens with me.

Jade took a direct hit to her head but kept on smiling.

Jade took a direct hit to her head but kept on smiling.

After getting the lay of the land so to speak, the mantis walked to the top of Jade’s head. It found a comfortable spot on her scalp and surveyed its surroundings, no doubt looking for insects to munch on. The vivid green of the mantis made a nice contrast with her black hair and begged me to take a photo.

Pulling out the macro lens with special flash, I slowly approached the mantis and fired off a few shots. After many decades of working with many different mammals, reptiles, and birds, I had an idea of their flight distance and just how close I could get (sometimes, wildlife is unpredictable). Since this was my first time photographing a praying mantis in the field, I was unsure just how close I could get before it was disturbed enough to move away. I took a guess and got it right.

It stayed for a short while in this position, ignoring me as I photographed it.

Soon enough it turned its attention to me and gave me a sideways look.

The praying mantis stayed on her head for quite a while as the rest of us silently watched it. The movements of its triangular head, with its bulbous compound eyes and 2 dark spots positioned the way they are kept us entertained. We felt like we were looking at a miniature dinosaur.

When no snacks were within its reach, it jumped from her head to her hand, and went into what looked like a meditative state. This meditative state is actually one of their hunting techniques. Camouflaging themselves and remaining motionless, they can ambush their prey when it approaches. They also stalk their prey with slow stealthy movements, similar to a chameleon with that long tongue.

It stayed motionless in this position on Jade’s hand, reminding us of an Upward Facing Dog yoga pose.

As it relaxed more and more, it put its head down between her fingers.

Much to our amusement and surprise, it then fell asleep between her fingers.

Our guide took us out 1 night to see the local nightlife. He was adept at finding the little critters at night, giving us a real-world example of the remarkable “night eyes” the Dayaks have. Just like at Camp Leakey in 1991, this guide did not want us to use our flashlights very much, so we kept them off as much as possible and walked close behind him for safety reasons.

Ants were everywhere, swarming the forest floor in the thousands. We would also see them streaming up and down the trees in long formations. It was as if another world was occurring at night as compared to the daytime.

The large ants would climb on our hands as we lowered our hands to the rainforest floor.

The large ants would climb on our hands as we lowered our hands to the rainforest floor.

Luckily, none of them were biting ants, and they just walked around our hands and up our arms. At Camp Leakey in 1991, we were warned that armies of fire ants would occasionally go through camp, viciously biting every person they came across. If we happened across one of these armies, we were to sound the alarm to everyone as a warning. The camp staff would then pour kerosene in a perimeter around the camp to repel them before everyone received excruciating bites.

Next up on our list of evening little critters was a spider. Borneo is the land of the jumping spider, so we all were a bit tentative of getting too close to the one our guide coaxed out of its hole.

I made fast work of taking this shot before the spider came out far enough to jump.

I made fast work of taking this shot before the spider came out far enough to jump.

As he was coaxing the spider out, our guide heard a faint chirping in the darkness. Like all the Dayaks, he had a keen sense of hearing, and localized the source as we scanned with our flashlights.

We had the external flash with us, and with the flashlights adding additional light, I taught Natalie (with the camera) how to photograph in the dark while I took a photo of the group.

Our amphibian friend seemed to enjoy the attention and patiently posed until Natalie got her flash exposure settings just right.

I was fascinated by the comings and goings of the large amount of the nocturnal small critter life in the rainforest. Being with an experienced Dayak guide made all the difference in safety and understanding of the lifecycles of these animals, and it is an experience highly recommend for everyone before these creatures are gone.

Next month, we will learn about the proboscis monkey with their bulbous noses and big stomachs that jumped through the trees along the Sekonyer river as we continued our journey to Camp Leakey. I was curious to see how my new autofocus digital camera would do, as compared to the manual focus camera I used to attempt to photograph them jumping 21 years prior. No blaming the camera this time for missed shots!

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