The Essence of the Tropical Rainforest

While in the rainforest, your eyes will wander off over and over as your senses are being triggered by the sounds of unknown animals, the flashy colors of some bird and the smell of ripe fruits.  At times, one instinct is to ask “what is that?” while my suggestion is to “shoot it first, ask questions later”. The reason is simple, sometimes these encounters happen so fast that if you don’t shoot it, it may be gone by the time you get an answer.  At the end, that shot may be a winner or simply an evidential shot of what you saw. This type of photography may be considered a snapshot as the creative process was minimal.  You aimed your camera and composed the best you could under the pressing circumstances and pressed the shutter release. 

Now, there’s another type of photography that requires you to think the best way to present your subject. This type of photography is usually accompanied by extra time on site with your subject. Time that is used to figure out the best way to highlight its features, perhaps capture something comical or simply show your skills by using the light to your advantage. Below there are a series of images that were created by means of spending extra time to create a captivating one. Whether you are experimenting or know exactly what you’re looking for, having that extra time to compose the perfect shot can make a difference between a snapshot capture and a creative image.

A Different Perspective

Leaf Mantis (R. Munguía)

Shooting this leaf mantis from below was a bit of a challenge as the mantis would not cooperate by peaking the head over the leaf’s edge.  After some trial an error, the image was executed using a fill flash from below. The curves on the leaf were used to divide the composition into two even sections, one of which was out-of-focus due to DOF (Depth-of-field) and the other tack sharp on the subject.

Green -crowned Brilliant (John Lampkin)

Again, a magnificent close-up image of Hummingbird taken by workshop participant and friend John Lampkin while in Costa Rica in 2022. The unusual view of the bird makes it very interesting and attractive as it’s a different view of a very photographed species. Don’t hesitate to shoot weird angles, you may be pleasantly surprised.

A Different Perspective

Strawberry Poison Dart (John Lampkin)

For this shot, John and I spent over 10 minutes trying to figure out the most effective way to highlight the subject. Finally, I offered to hold a second flash from behind the frog to create an almost natural beam of light filtering through the rainforest canopy with the hope of defining the body of the frog inside the cup mushroom. It worked! One of the favorite photos of the 2023 photo expedition.

Red-eyed Treefrog silhouette (R. Munguía)

A similar effect was created for this photograph of a Red-eyed Treefrog backlit by the light of a flash.  This effect is really easy to recreate by simply shooting a flash slave above the subject. The difficulty comes from focusing in the darkness of the night while hand-holding the lens.  An extra pair of hands comes really handy on this situation.

A Different Perspective

Scarlet Macaw (Reinier Munguía)

After shooting over 200 photos of these Scarlet Macaws flying from left to right, it was time to do something different. Yes, we always aim to freeze actions and obtain tack sharp images, but if you want to be creative with moving subjects like this flying birds, try using a slow shutter speed  and pan your camera as you take the shot. The results are a bit impressionistic and while it may look like you don’t know anything about photography for obtaining a very blurred image, this in fact is you using your camera creatively. When it happens by mistake, it’s a different story.

 

A Different Perspective

Black-cowled Orioles (Reinier Munguía)

We all watch this adult feeding the fledgling on the branch, but the shots were boring and didn’t have a good point of focus to drive the viewer. Then the youngster decided to jump on the bromelia and the scene took a turn for the best. Now the image looked more dynamic and capturing the moment when the food was transfered made the shot a success. So the moral of the story….stay til’ the end.

 

Central American Bullfrog eating a Gladiator frog  (Reinier Munguía)

At this point we have been shooting frogs in the darkness of the night for an hour and under a light rain, when suddenly out of nowhere a frog falls from the trees and right in front of a hungry bullfrog. The action was quick, and without hesitation, I moved in the right position to capture the struggle. The gladiator put up a fight, but its size did not deter the bullfrog from making it a meal.

 

A Different Perspective

Leaf-cutter Ants (Reinier Munguía)

When shooting Leaf-cutter is not unusual to see scouts riding on the leaf being carried by the workers. These are unique images that demonstrate the hard to believe weight carrying capacity of these tiny insects. The next time you have an opportunity to capture how amazing nature can be, don’t hesitate to hit the trigger.  This show was really planned carefully by allowing the ant to climb on an endless stick, one that did not have any pheromones making the ants stay in the same stick for quite some time, enough for few chances to capture the piggyback activity.

Collared Aracari (Reinier Munguía)

This young aracari was simply drunk from eating too many ripe bananas.  Just kidding, it wasn’t drunk, it was just taking the early morning sun or basking.  

Four-eyed  Frog (Reinier Munguía)

When I saw these two, straight in front of me, I figured a lower angle will capture the funky looking four-eyed frog effect.  Unusual and funny at the same time. 

Leaf Cutter Ants: The First Farmers

Leaf Cutter Ants: The First Farmers

Rainforests are among the most biodiverse places on Earth. Millions of years of evolution in these regions have resulted in some of the most amazing organisms ever known to man. Being able to survive in a harsh environment dominated by high temperatures and high humidity is a requirement more than a choice. These conditions promote plant growth and attract many arthropods. Insects are among the most diverse animals in the rainforest.  Butterflies are perhaps the most eye-catching of all with vivid colors and metallic shine, some using these colors to warn off their toxic nature.  Beetles, grasshoppers and leaf insects all munch on the exuberant vegetation with little remorse for the plants they are eating.

 

But those who visit the rainforest will rarely do so without crossing the path of one of the most laborious species in the world –the leaf-cutter ants. There are 47 species leaf cutting ants. My first encounter with these ants came as no surprise in Costa Rica, where they seem to inhabit almost any land ecosystem except for high elevations above 6,500 feet. You may even find them carrying leaf pieces as you exit the airport terminal towards the parking lot where several trees make up the landscape.

 

The most interesting fact about leaf-cutters is their ability to farm their own produce- a fungus, to be exact. The pieces of leaves they collect are cut in smaller pieces before inoculating them with the fungus, the only source of food for the ants and their larvae. A well-established colony can contain over 5 million ants, of which most are females. The queen is about 2 inches in length and may live for over 20 years. During her lifespan, she can lay more than 200 million eggs.

 

These social arthropods are well known for their well-structured society divided into castes. The different castes are defined by size. The Mimims are the smaller workers helping to harvest the fungus and feed the larvae, while the Minors are found along the trails and are in charge of defending the workers from any intruders. The Mediae are larger and are responsible for collecting the leaves and bringing them inside the colony. Finally, the Majors are the largest of all, working as soldiers to protect the colony. They are also known for helping clear the paths used by the Mediae and getting rid of waste produced by the colony. Waste workers are usually left isolated from the fungus gardens to avoid contamination.

 

So, the next time you come across a trail of leaf-cutters, take your time to follow them, as you will be surprised at how far and large the colony may be. While these may be one of the toughest insects to shoot, you get plenty of opportunities as these guys will be on the move non-stop. Try them the next time to visit any country in Central or South America. There are two species that are found in the U.S. ; they can be found in Arizona, Texas and Southern California.

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A mediae carrying a heart-shaped petal back to the colony. Costa Rica.
A mediae carrying a large leaf fragment and a protecting minor.
Leaf-cutters follow pheromone trails on their way to and from the foraging tree
Leaf-cutters live in underground colonies holding millions of ants.
The author and his wife at one large leaf-cutter colony in Costa Rica.
In 2022 we came across a nest colony that was over 35 feet wide. Here's Carolina Villegas posing on top of these massive nest for size reference.

Documenting Ophaga pumilio in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

I have a true passion for amphibians, those creatures with moist skin and sticky toes that many people fear or dislike. They are jumpy and at times hard to find, yet that’s nothing more than a challenging proposition to a frog fan like me. This time the trip took me for the second time in less than 6 months to the Bocas del Toro district in Panama. There’s something magical happening in this area composed of the mainland and few surrounding islands to the point that scientist called them the Galapagos of the Caribbean. By now you should know the importance of the Galapagos Islands and if you don’t here’s a tip. The Galapagos are a living evolution laboratory, where we can observe the effects of adaptive radiation, a process in which organisms diversify rapidly from an ancestral species into a multitude of new forms. In the case of Bocas del Toro, a tiny frog has evolved many different phenotypes – a description of observable physical, physiological or behavioral characteristics that separate a group of individuals from the rest of the species. Different from genotypes which are the actual genetic identity, phenotypes are affected by both the genotype and the unique environmental conditions surrounding the individual. My subject is a tiny frog — Oophaga pumulio — a.k.a. the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog. In it’s most common form it looks like the one below.

A Strawberry Poison Dart Frog (Oophaga pumilio) carries her to tadpole to a water source, usually a bromelia.

The challenging part was finding these tiny frogs no more than one inch in length while dodging the weather. For starters, these guys don’t like bad weather. In order to find them I needed to hear them first. Too much rain and they go mute, making them nearly impossible to find on the leaf litter of the forest floor. Even when the conditions were optimal, they will choose impossible places from where to call, making them inaccessible or difficult to photograph. Walking through muddied trails, slipping down the hill sides or landing on large puddles of water made the adventure more exciting at times. Once found then I had to battle the elements and the gear. Constant drizzle and high humidity sabotaged the gear more than once. The copious sweat getting in the eyes and all over the cameras added to the miserable ground conditions. To visit some of the sites where these frogs can be found we had to take boats. One of the interesting things about these frogs is the fact that several phenotypes can be found in one same island. In the case of Isla Bastimentos there are at least three different forms of the frog. Isla Colon also have their share. Every large island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago offers at least two phenotypes. But the mainland offer a unique set of conditions that produced even more phenotypes. Geographical isolation by either rivers or mountains provided enough separation for the establishment of various morphs, occasionally only separated by a river and in places where two distinct population exist, you can even find some individuals sharing characteristics of both populations. Insane to think that such a small area produced so much color evolution, but considering these frogs have a tiny range and small number of offspring.  Below are some of the phenotypes I found during a three day expedition. 

But there’s more to these tiny frogs. Their aposematic coloration announcing their toxicity is just one of the traits that allow them to survive in the wild. Their reproduction is extremely complicated for a frog and I even show a high degree of parental care. The males attract the females by means of their calls. Once they find each other, they mate by means of a “cloacal kiss”. Soon after the female lays up to five eggs on a small puddle of water, usually collected on leaves on the forest floor. During this period the male urinates on the eggs to keep them moist if the water evaporates, and rotates the eggs before they turn into tadpoles. Ten to fourteen days later the tadpoles emerge from the eggs. At this point the female takes full care of the tadpoles. As the water dries out, she will carefully move the tadpoles to water filled vegetation usually bromeliads.  To prevent cannibalism among the tadpoles, the female deposits a single tadpole per section of the plant. The collected water is low in nutrient, so the female deposit unfertilized eggs to feed the tadpoles until they are ready to leave the water phase fifty days later.

Nothing more exciting than being able to document this species and its many phenotypes. But the work is not complete. There are many more phenotypes still to be documented. The adventure continues on a follow up expedition in 2022.