Our photographers have been busy this spring shooting new material, so we’ve had lots of new story content make its way to the website recently. From squirrels to slime mould, all of the following images were taken between March & May 2021.
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Squirrel Shenanigans – Tony Wu
RARE IMAGES CAPTURE JAPANESE FLYING SQUIRRELS SWOOPING THROUGH THEIR FOREST HOME
Native to Hokkaido, the Japanese dwarf flying squirrel is notorious for two things: its cartoon cuteness and its ability to take to the air. With the help of skin membranes called patagia, which span between their wrists and ankles, these big-eyed rodents can make flights—or, more accurately, controlled glides—of up to 50 metres. But to photograph one of these squirrels in-flight is a lot harder than you might think. According to photographer Tony Wu, who took these images last month, the little rodents are “like furry balls of lightning.” Add to that the fact that they are mostly nocturnal and spend the majority of their time high off the ground, and you have all the ingredients to confound even the hardiest of nature photographers.
To increase his chances of success, Wu spent three weeks with the squirrels during their reproductive season, when they sometimes emerge from their nests in daylight. During this time, tensions between males can grow heated. Multiple rivals may clash over the right to mate with a single female, even if she has already chosen her suitor. This often results in aggressive defence tactics by her partner, involving lots of chasing, punching and aerial acrobatics. One of Wu’s images depicts the moment when a resident male attacks an interloper, body-slamming him off the nest tree. According to Wu, “the dislodged squirrel pointed his head down, opened his arms and glided to a safe landing. He then climbed back up the tree for more battle.” On this occasion, the resident male was successful in defending his position, but that isn’t always the case, notes Wu. In a few instances, he caught females in the act of surreptitious liaisons: “secret quickies, in a manner of speaking.”
Capturing the action required a lot of waiting around in freezing conditions, and careful observations of the squirrel’s behaviour. “Plus luck,” adds Wu. “Maybe as much as 90% is down to luck. The rest is understanding the behaviour better with each encounter.” Even if he was lucky enough to witness squirrel activity, photographing it added a whole new layer of challenge. The light levels were usually low (not very helpful when you need high shutter speeds to freeze the action) and the squirrels were often high in the canopy, 10—20m off the ground. “To make matters worse,” Wu explains, “they move so rapidly that it’s difficult to predict how, when and where they will act, particularly when they take flight.”
But in the end, Wu’s efforts were not in vain. His images depict a behaviour that is rarely seen, let alone photographed. The experience has left him with a newfound respect for his subjects, and he will almost certainly be back next season for more squirrel shenanigans.
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Ruffled Feathers – Markus Varesvuo
DRAMATIC IMAGES SHOT IN MARCH PORTRAY BLACK GROUSE AT THEIR ANNUAL BATTLEGROUNDS IN FINLAND
Every spring, the males (known as black cocks) gather together on a field, bog or a frozen lake to participate in a drama written thousands of generations ago. They have a singular goal: to reproduce. And the drive is strong. But there are only so many females, and when it comes to choosing a suitor, they’re picky. The males have to fight it out at communal “lekking grounds”, where they vie for attention by performing elaborate displays. This involves a ritualised series of dance moves, including flutter flights, demonstration flights and strutting displays where the birds fan out their tails, spread their wings and inflate the wattles above their eyes.
When two males face up to each other, feathers are ruffled and tempers fray. They try to intimidate each other by having a dance-off; a ritual which may or may not escalate into a real fight. They fluff up their white feathers, raise their lyre-shaped tails and utter a dovelike bubbling call, interspersed with a harsh ‘kweek’ sound, often emitted during a jump. But if this posturing doesn’t settle the dispute, things quickly spiral into a full-on fight. Tussles can be violent, with cock birds pecking and kicking at each other.
“Males of equal strength can fight for a minute, even longer,” says Markus Varesvuo, who captured the action in fascinating detail. “The combatants perform stunning aerial acrobatics, sending each other’s feathers flying. There is, however, very seldom any graver damage than that.”
Varesvuo has been documenting black grouse at their leks for several years, but never gets tired of it. “Photographing the lek was a phenomenal experience, even if it’s the hundredth time I’ve been there! The sounds fill the air, and the early morning light can be breath-taking. If it’s calm with no wind, and a crisp chill in the air, the birds’ breath can be seen steaming against the backlight.”
The tournament lasts several weeks and is still ongoing at the time of writing. Towards the end of it, around late April to early May, the females arrive. Fighting intensifies even further as the males compete to establish a ranking order amongst themselves. The dominant males gain the favoured position at the centre of the lek, while the females remain at the edges, where they can scrutinise the contestants and choose the most impressive ones. The champions get to mate with the best females, and thus the fittest genes are passed on to the next generation. As for the losers, there is always next spring, and another chance to be the fittest cock on the block!
NOTES ON LOCATION: Varesvuo photographed the birds at two different sites: a large, open bog in Vaala, Central Finland (where up to 70 birds were present at times) and also in a snow-covered field in Kuusamo, Northeast Finland which accommodated a smaller gathering of 14 males. Bogs are the more traditional lekking sites, but have diminished due to drainage and peat extraction, so the grouse have started to find new places, to strut their stuff. There were visits by the females at both sites, but no actual mating. However, the mere presence of the females meant the cock birds would reliably start lekking every morning at sunrise, and would do so for longer. Activity can last between 1 to 3 hours.
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Night Brawlers – Erlend Haarberg
WHEN NIGHT FALLS, THE HARES COME OUT TO PLAY
Dramatic new images reveal the hidden night life of mountain hares in Norway. As spring awakens in the upland birch forest of Vauldalen, tensions between mountain hares begins to grow. April and May is their mating season, when a surge of testosterone pushes the males into an amorous mood. In their pursuit of females, they engage in nightly brawls. Upright on their hind legs, limbs clash and fur flies. The first one to land a direct hit against the head or body of his rival is usually the winner.
The clashes can erupt for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it occurs when rival males come to blows. Other times, it’s the female who instigates the epic boxing matches, as she attempts to fend off unwanted attention. To add even more drama to the hare hullaballoo, the photographer also saw hares fighting over the food he had left out to attract them.
To capture these images, Erlend Haarberg has endured many sleepless nights in his hide, with freezing temperatures outside. The photos were taken during the first weeks of April, well into the spring season—but this far north in the mountains, the snow is persistent. For Haarberg, the conditions only add more drama to the images: “Windy, snowy nights are always exciting, making more evocative images. Just to experience the spring months in the mountains, when nature awakens after the dark winter, is something I look forward to every year.”
As their Latin name, Lepus timidus, suggests, mountain hares are timid creatures – and for good reason. This species is hunted by golden eagles and foxes and they’re also a popular hunting target for humans. But in spring, the hares become more active, mostly emerging under the cover of darkness. Haarberg relies on artificial lighting to observe and photograph their behaviour: “The animals usually remain wary of me, even after several weeks of my presence, but gradually become accustomed to the clicks and whirs of the camera and the subtle movements of my lens..”
The dramatic backlighting lends a graphic nature to Haarberg’s images, emphasising the silhouetted forms of the hares and accentuating the snowflakes that flurry around them as they fight. At the time of writing, Haarberg is still working in his hide every night and will continue photographing the hares until the action stops.
Hidden Jewels – Andy Sands
A PHOTOGRAPHER WENT LOOKING FOR SLIME, AND UNEARTHED HIDDEN JEWELS
The organism you’re looking at is perfectly common and found all over the world. If you’ve ever been for a walk in the woods, you’ve probably passed it more times than you can count. The only reason you’ve never seen it before is because it’s so small: around 1mm tall, to be exact.
Lamproderma scintillans is what’s known as a slime mould. It grows in leaf litter, often on rotting holly leaves. It begins life as a single-celled amoeba, feeding on the bacteria it finds on forest floors. Some slime moulds go it alone, feeding until they reach reproductive maturity. But when food is scarce, hundreds of thousands of these amoebae can join forces, coalescing to form a single mass of slithering, microbial goo. This so-called ‘plasmodium’ can crawl like a slug in search of greener pastures. When it’s ready to reproduce, the slime mould will produce ‘fruiting bodies’ or ‘sporangia’, each resembling a tiny toadstool, as shown here. The sporangia ripen and burst open, releasing spores, which develop into amoebae. And thus, the cycle begins anew.
With slime moulds, nature has struck upon a winning formula. According to the oldest fossils, they’ve existed practically unchanged for at least 100 million years, so they must be doing something right. “The fact that you can find the same species pretty much anywhere on the planet is fascinating to me,” says Andy Sands, a UK-based photographer who has spent months searching for slime moulds under dead logs in the woods around his Hertfordshire home. “They were almost certainly around before the single landmass broke up into continents,” he adds. “They make up a huge part of microbial life in the soil. There’s a wealth of them, right there, under our feet, and yet they are painstakingly difficult to find!”
When Sands first saw images of the highly iridescent, metallic sporangia of Lamproderma scintillans, he knew he wanted to photograph them himself. He spent a few weeks searching to no avail, but finally struck gold. “Suddenly, there it was,” he says. “A Holly leaf covered with around 70 sporangia of all different colours. It was a great moment and only served to intensify my interest. I have since found dozens more leaves, twigs and tiny pieces of wood chip with these slime moulds on and the thrill of discovery never gets old.”
But sleuthing for slime moulds, Sands notes, is no easy feat: “You usually have to crawl around for hours in the woods, armed with strong reading glasses, a magnifying glass and a torch. It is often cold and wet and—if searching under Holly bushes—not at all comfortable. But when you catch sight of a line of tiny iridescent jewel-like blobs it is all worth it, even if it has taken up to five hours some days to find any!”
If the hunt for a slime mould is challenging, then the task of photographing the tiny sporangia is another ball game entirely. The first part of the solution, Sands has found, is to mount a microscope objective to his camera using an extension tube. This has the effect of increasing magnification. He then employs a photographic technique called ‘focus stacking’, whereby multiple images are taken at slightly different focal points. Sands combines these digitally to produce the final images. Each one is formed from anywhere between 90 & 200 separate frames.
The images of Lamproderma scintillans showcase just one of the species that Sands has photographed in a project that has spanned 16 months to date. His fascination with slime moulds began in December 2019, when he was searching for fungi to photograph and came across the tiny stalked globules of a slime mould instead. He soon became hooked, and started looking for more, even splashing out £200 on a guidebook covering 800 different species. “I was captivated by their strange forms, wonderful colours and amazing life cycles,” says Sands. “So much attention is given to headline-grabbing subjects such as big, furry animals and global temperatures, but I wanted to put a spotlight on the smaller, equally important things, that go unnoticed. To paraphrase Sarah Lloyd: ‘it’s all down there in the murky depths, there where the slime mould creeps’. These organisms are a crucial part of the web of life, and I want to show their beauty so that people can perhaps consider them as part of the bigger picture. As my grandad used to say: ‘look after the pennies, and the pounds take care of themselves.'”
Despite their microscopic livelihoods, slime moulds are opening up vast frontiers of research in the world at large. Studies have shown that they can solve complex problems without a brain or even a single neuron. It has been demonstrated that, in its plasmodial stage, one species of slime mould can find the shortest path through a maze. Even more remarkably, when researchers presented it with scattered food sources modelled after Tokyo, the slime mould responded by self-organising into a network that was comparable in efficiency, reliability, and cost to the city’s real-world train network. Using similar mould-mapping techniques, researchers have showed that—according to the slime at least—the UK’s motorway network should be re-arranged.
These ancient, primitive organisms clearly have a lot to teach us – not just about efficient transportation design, but perhaps even the universe itself. Slime moulds are now being used to help cosmologists understand how dark matter is distributed in space. New research, published in March 2020, showed how simulations based on slime mould behaviour can shed fresh light on the cosmic web – the largest and most mysterious structure in the universe. So, the next time you go for a walk in the woods, spare a thought for the tiny marvels beneath your feet.
Geldingadalur Volcano Eruption – Theo Bosboom
IN ICELAND, PEOPLE ARE FLOCKING TO STAND WITHIN METRES OF ERUPTING LAVA…
We are thrilled to share images of the Geldingadalur Volcano eruption which took place in early April in Iceland. The eruption occured during ongoing social distancing restrictions, but rapidly attracted more than 30,000 visitors. The gentle lava flow allowed people to get so close to the eruption that they could toast marshmallows over it!
After weeks of high numbers of earthquakes (around 50,000), the Geldingadalir volcano in the Fagradalsfjall area of Iceland started erupting on March 19th, 2021. The eruption was predicted by experts. Fagradalsfjall is located on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwest Iceland, only 30 km away from the capital Reykjavik. The eruption – the first one in 800 years at the peninsula – is considered to be small and very different from the explosive Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010, that disrupted air traffic in Europe for weeks. The Fagradalsfjall eruption has no ash cloud and poses no threat to infrastructure or towns. In the first half of April, new fissures opened close to the original site of the eruption. At present there are no signs that the eruption will stop anytime soon.
Large numbers of people, mainly from Iceland, visit the site of the eruption. From the start of the eruption on March 19th, to the end of the first week in April, the volcano had already drawn an estimated 30,000 visitors. That equals almost 10% of the total population of Iceland. The hike to the eruption site is not that easy, around 5 km one way through the mountains, including a couple of steep parts, of which some must be scaled with the help of a rope. The weather in March and April can be quite challenging, with hard wind and very low temperatures, sometimes dropping to -10 C.
But this doesn’t seem to stop the Icelandic people from going there. The mood is very happy and cheerful, almost like a festival. People are grilling marshmallows in the lava, bringing radios or even a guitar, and taking their time to enjoy the spectacle. The gentle lava flow allows people to get very close to the eruption.
Part of the reason why this eruption has attracted large numbers of visitors, is due to the fact that it is close to the capital Reykjavik and it is not considered too dangerous for the public. People have reported being bored from COVID-19 lockdown measures and consider the eruption to be a welcome distraction. The large number of visitors comes with the increased risk of the virus spreading throughout Iceland. Nevertheless very few visitors wear face masks and not everyone adheres to social distancing rules. The Icelandic government monitors cars arriving at the eruption site, to check if there are any foreign tourists who should be in quarantine. Because of the travel restrictions, the vast majority of visitors to the volcano are from Iceland. This might change within a couple of months, as the eruption continues.
On average, a volcano erupts every 4 to 5 years in Iceland. Icelandic people are usually proud of their volcanoes.
Red Fox – Milan Radisics
Throughout 2021, photographer Milan Radisics has been photographing a vixen—which he has named Roxy—outside his house in the Vértes Mountains, in Hungary. Most recently, he captured images of her in the rain, which he says made her nervous: “Roxy really doesn’t like the rain. Not because she will get wet, but because the sound of the rain makes it harder to hear potential threats. In these images, her vulnerability is reflected in her posture,” he says.
Radisics first became aware that the fox was regularly visiting his garden in late 2020, and saw it as an opportunity to observe her behaviour and try to take some photos. At first, he watched and photographed from the window, using a remote trigger to operate the camera from a distance. “But Roxy knew I was there,” he concedes. “She would often stop and sniff around my door. She was nervous initially. The first time she heard the camera click she trembled a little, because it was an unusual sound. But over time, Roxy grew bolder, even interacting with my equipment. She would pull the lens hood off my camera, or bite the cable for the remote trigger!”
After a while, Radisics stepped outside to photograph his visitor. He soon learned that any sudden movements would send Roxy fleeing to the corner of the garden, where she would hide behind the bushes. But with time, Radisics was able to earn the vixen’s trust: “Now, Roxy will sometimes spend half an hour in my garden. I talk to her and we are able to get closer. On a couple of occasions, she has been relaxed enough to fall asleep in front of me.”
Radisics has had to adopt a nocturnal lifestyle, staying up until the early hours to document Roxy’s nightly visits. “Since December, she has visited 5-7 times every night,” he says. “There have only been two nights when she hasn’t visited at all. One was in the middle of the January, during the mating period, and the second was on March 18th, when her cubs arrived. Nowadays, Roxy is showing up more frequently in the daytime, because her cubs are two months old, and they need more and more food!”
Radisics has observed Roxy hunting mice in his garden, but he also puts out food for her: “Being such opportunistic creatures, foxes will sniff around every nook and cranny,” Radisics explains. “Roxy soon discovered the food that I left out for her, as well as the scraps that I placed in my quince tree for an owl that was also visiting my garden. Although I placed the food on one of the branches, Roxy climbed up and took it every time.”
Working at night allowed Radisics to get creative with his lighting. In several of the images he has chosen to place a light source behind Roxy, to emphasise her silhouette. “It is both a great challenge and a wonderful opportunity to develop my skills,” Radisics says.
After months of daily contact with Roxy, Radisics has struck up a bond: “Here in Hungary, many people see foxes as dangerous, rabid creatures that need to be controlled. I want my pictures to show that they are harmless, cute and friendly animals that deserve our respect.”
Pygmy Squid – Tony Wu
MINUTE FEMALE SQUID FERTILISE THEIR EGGS WITH SPERM STORED ON THEIR HEADS
Small enough to fit inside your thumbprint with room to spare, the northern pygmy squid is aptly named. Typically measuring a mere 5 – 20mm, it belongs to the world’s smallest known group of cephalopods (a classification which also includes octopus, cuttlefish and nautilus).
But despite the diminutive size of these subjects, photographer Tony Wu was able to get up close and personal with the squid as they went about the important business of egg-laying off the coast of Japan. Wu describes it as “a far more moving experience than I could have ever imagined. The tiny cephalopods made eye contact, so to speak, whenever I approached. I could see the females looking me over, taking time to consider my presence. Each time, it was obvious when the relevant female decided, ‘This thing is ok,’ and continued with her activities. I sensed, in other words, cognition. Rather than just a tiny squid robotically depositing eggs, there was a conscious mind observing and assessing. Not at all what I had anticipated.”
Once the female has decided upon a blade of eelgrass on which to deposit her ova, she first has to attach herself to it with the help of an adhesive organ on her back. These squids live in shallow coastal water, where there is a lot of swell and surge. By anchoring themselves to a blade of seagrass, the females can stay put as it sways and flips every which way.
According to Wu, there is a specific ritual to the process of egg-laying itself: “the female first cleans the surface of the eelgrass by rubbing it with her arms. Next, she extrudes a single egg and raises her arms to receive it. She places the jelly-coated egg on the eelgrass and pushes it down with her body. The process is repeated, with the female laying eggs in neat rows two to three across. Research papers suggest it takes about 20 seconds per egg. In real life, the timing I saw varied considerably. Some females required about 20 minutes to complete the egg-depositing process. One took nearly an hour. I would describe the entire process as delicate, tender, perhaps even loving. The care with which the females cleaned the surface of the grass, deposited each egg and moved on to the next was moving.”
An intriguing characteristic of the squid’s reproductive system is that the females store sperm from multiple males and fertilise each egg individually as it is deposited. Males deliver and attach packages of sperm—called ‘spermatophores’—to the female’s body (visible as curly white strands on the females’ heads in several of Wu’s images). The sperm somehow migrates to a receptacle near the female’s mouth, though how this happens remains a mystery. When the female presses an egg onto the seagrass, she bites an opening into it and inseminates the egg by injecting a small quantity of sperm. At no point is there any copulation between the male and female.
This species has two reproductive cycles—and two generations—each year: one in the cool season (November to May), and a second in the warmer part of the year (May to October). In Japan’s Yamaguchi Prefecture, where these images were taken, peak reproductive activity normally occurs in February and March. This year, however, it was delayed until April. Why this was the case is a mystery.
Pygmy squids are skilled hunters, stalking and grabbing crustaceans and immobilising them with their venom. After injecting digestive enzymes, the squid sucks the resulting protein shake from its prey, before discarding the empty, lifeless husk. In one of Wu’s images, a squid has wrapped its arms around a small skeleton shrimp, stubbornly clinging to a blade of seagrass. Instead of expending energy, the squid used the ocean swells, which swung its body back and forth, effectively transforming its mass into a pendulum. It’s no surprise that the crustacean lost the battle in the end.
If you’d like to license any of these story sets please do get in touch.