The 8th annual Christmas stuffing post (and trifle and cake)

This year: a return to the old standby of chestnut and mushroom for the savoury one, and apricot pineapple and ginger for the fruity one. If you really want to details of the recipe, check back to previous stuffing posts.

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And this year I made a trifle because I’m not a huge fan of Christmas pudding and it seemed like a sufficiently Christmassy alternative. From bottom to top, it’s chocolate sponge, cherries in syrup, grated chocolate, vanilla custard, cherry jam, whipped cream, decorated with glacé cherries, gold balls and iridescent sprinkles. A Black Forest gateau type thing.

To be really picky, it could have have less sponge and/or more liquid to soak it in (I would have added booze but I was serving small children), and more custard. But it was nice anyway.

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And I made a christmas cake for the first time this year. It’s a Sri Lankan recipe from Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Asian Cookbook, and it’s very much in the mould of a traditional European Christmas cake, but with more spices and a more interesting mix of fruit. I substituted ground almonds for the semolina for gluten-free purposes. It turned out really well, recognisably a Christmas cake but much better than the usual. Note, though, it is seriously rich: one slice is almost too much to eat at a time.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 24: Pyrops candelaria

I don’t make much attempt to theme these advent calendars around Christmas, but for the last entry I have, in the past, tried to get seasonal: the bird was a robin, the painting was a nativity.

But Christmas isn’t the insectiest time of the year up here in northern Europe, and I don’t have a ready cultural association to hand. So I picked Pyrops candelaria, a planthopper from southeast Asia, because it (sort of, if you squint a bit) looks like a Christmas tree:

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Happy Christmas everyone!

» ‘Mr Elephant’ is © Charles Lam and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 23: Adela reaumurella

This is Adela reaumurella. Google suggests a couple of common names have been attached to it — Green Longhorn and Metallic Longhorn — but neither seems to have much traction. And actually, the fact that so many British moths have established English names is the exception rather than the rule; if you’re interested in insects, you’re going to have to tangle with Latin sooner or later.

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Anyway, this is a species I saw in the local woods a couple of years ago. They’re pretty tiny, the wingspan is less than 2cm, and it would be easy to walk past without noticing them; but they are tiny peacocks. Only the males have those ludicrous antennae, and they are a direct equivalent of a peacock’s tail.

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But it wasn’t the antennae that made me notice them; it was the dancing. There were perhaps a dozen in the group I saw, perched in a patch of sunlight, and they kept flying up couple of feet and then drifting back down to their leaf; and all the time they were in the air they held their antennae up above their heads in a V shape.

There’s a rather wobbly video of a much larger swarm here.

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If they were birds, I would say they were lekking. A lek is where a group of males — grouse, birds of paradise, or whatever — gather in one place to perform next to each other, compete for the best display spots, and try to win the attention of females.

Seeing a longhorn moths doesn’t quite scratch my itch to go to New Guinea and see birds of paradise; but it’s still a fun thing to find.

» ‘Longhorn moth, Adela reaumurella’ is © nutmeg66 and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. ‘longhorns’ is © Nigel Jones and used under a by-nc-nd licence. ‘Adela reaumurella-07’ is © IJmuiden and used under a by-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 22: Libelloides coccajus

I’ve left this rather late today, with family christmas stuff to do and the Strictly Come Dancing final to watch, so here’s a quick one. This is Libelloides coccajus, and it’s the most startling insect I’ve seen in recent years.

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Startling because when I saw it in Provence I just had no idea what it was. I mean, it looked as much like a moth or a dragonfly as anything… but not really. I only considered those because I was completely stumped.

And it’s not that difficult to stump me — I’m no expert — but to see something as large and spectacular as this in Europe, and be unable to narrow it down beyond ‘insect’; it was exciting and frustrating.

I now know it’s an ascalaphid or owlfly. They are related to antlions, lacewings, and mantidflies — which makes as much sense as anything.

» ‘Ascalaphe soufré (Libelloides coccajus)’ is © Le No and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 21: Giant Peacock Moth

This is a Giant Peacock Moth, Saturnia pyri:

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It’s Europe’s largest moth, but not quite as large as the photo makes it look; that is a child’s foot. But still, it can have a 6″ wingspan, which is pretty good.

I chose that picture because I think there’s something weirdly charming about the microgenre of ‘awkward photographs of people with large insects perched on part of their body’. But here’s a better picture of the moth:

Okáň hruškový (Saturnia pyri)

This is a passage from Social Life In The Insect World by the great French entomologist and writer Jean Henri Fabre (‘butterfly’ is a translation of the French ‘papillon’ which means both butterfly and moth):

On the morning of the 6th of May a female emerged from her cocoon in my presence on my laboratory table. I cloistered her immediately, all damp with the moisture of metamorphosis, in a cover of wire gauze. I had no particular intentions regarding her; I imprisoned her from mere habit; the habit of an observer always on the alert for what may happen.

I was richly rewarded. About nine o’clock that evening, when the household was going to bed, there was a sudden hubbub in the room next to mine. Little Paul, half undressed, was rushing to and fro, running, jumping, stamping, and overturning the chairs as if possessed. I heard him call me. “Come quick!” he shrieked; “come and see these butterflies! Big as birds! The room’s full of them!”

Okáň hruškový (Saturnia pyri)

This astonishing sight recalled the prisoner of the morning to my mind. “Put on your togs, kiddy!” I told my son; “put down your cage, and come with me. We shall see something worth seeing.”

We had to go downstairs to reach my study, which occupies the right wing of the house. In the kitchen we met the servant; she too was bewildered by the state of affairs. She was pursuing the huge butterflies with her apron, having taken them at first for bats.

It seemed as though the Great Peacock had taken possession of my whole house, more or less. What would it be upstairs, where the prisoner was, the cause of this invasion? Happily one of the two study windows had been left ajar; the road was open.

Okáň hruškový (Saturnia pyri)

Candle in hand, we entered the room. What we saw is unforgettable. With a soft flic-flac the great night-moths were flying round the wire-gauze cover, alighting, taking flight, returning, mounting to the ceiling, re-descending. They rushed at the candle and extinguished it with a flap of the wing; they fluttered on our shoulders, clung to our clothing, grazed our faces. My study had become a cave of a necromancer, the darkness alive with creatures of the night! Little Paul, to reassure himself, held my hand much tighter than usual.

How many were there? About twenty. To these add those which had strayed into the kitchen, the nursery, and other rooms in the house, and the total must have been nearly forty. It was a memorable sight—the Night of the Great Peacock! Come from all points of the compass, warned I know not how, here were forty lovers eager to do homage to the maiden princess that morning born in the sacred precincts of my study.

I actually remembered this story being about the Giant Peacock Moth’s slightly smaller relative, the Emperor Moth, probably because the Emperor Moth is found in Britain and the GPM isn’t (I’ve personally never seen either of them). Which is if anything even more beautifully marked.

Social Life in the Insect World is available on Project Gutenberg, long with several other books by Fabre. They are genuinely worth checking out.*

* despite the occasionally clunky translation; can ‘Put on your togs, kiddy!’ really have been good idiomatic English even in 1911?

» ‘Saturnia Pyri tximeleta erraldoia’ is © Marije, Peru eta Lili and used under a CC by-sa licence. The other three (1, 2, 3) are © Photo Nature and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 19: Death-watch Beetle

Imagine, it is the early nineteenth century, on a still summer night in a creaky timber-framed cottage in the English countryside; and you are awake, sitting up with a sick child and a single flickering tallow candle for light.

And quiet but persistent, from somewhere in the darkness, you hear a noise.

It’s not surprising it might seem like a sinister omen.

Especially not surprising when you learn about some of other omens of death just in Oxfordshire:

local omens include crocks rattling, a spider making a ticking noise, two black crows on a line, a knock on the door with no-one there, crickets rapidly leaving a house, a dog howling, the clock striking 12 during the second sermon or hymn (Adderbury), fire burning with a bright hole in the middle (Stoke Row), a coffin shape formed in ironed linen or a loaf of bread, and a candle guttering and the grease spiralling to form a winding sheet.

It was taboo to wash clothes on Good Friday or New Year’s Day, to wash blankets in May, or to seat 13 at a table. People dreaded a picture falling from a wall for no apparent reason, scissors falling point downwards, or a glass ringing (indicating the death of a sailor). Dressmakers avoided accidentally stitching a hair into their work. It was bad luck if the eyes of a corpse remained open, or the corpse stayed in the house over a Sunday, or the funeral had to be postponed. People encountering a funeral procession would walk a little way with it to avert bad luck.

Plants associated with death include flowers with drooping heads such as snowdrops, dead flowers found outside and picked up, red and white flowers in a vase (especially in hospitals where they were described as ‘blood and bandages’), flowers blooming out of season, fruit trees blossoming twice in one year, or out of season, lilac brought in, parsley transplanted or given away, and red hot pokers blooming twice.

Many death omens were associated with birds: birds coming into the house, tapping on the window, flying into a closed window or flying down a chimney, cocks crowing at midnight, crows or owls perching near the house, and a robin perching on a chair.

They must have lived their lives surrounded by a constant swirl of portents, good or bad. Presumably most people, most of the time, shrugged it all off; but you can imagine if you were stressed, or depressed, or worried about someone’s health, you would find yourself seeing threatening signs everywhere.

That’s what the adult beetle looks like. 7mm long, mottled brown, slightly hairy. They make the ticking sound to attract mates by banging their heads against the timber.

And it might be an omen; not of death, but of some expensive renovation work. Because they are woodborers and if the adults are banging their heads against your beams, it probably means that their larvae are munching away, hollowing them out.

» The recording and the photo are both © Gilles San Martin and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío

Beyond the Islands is set in the Galapagos. It’s a novel in the form of a set of eight stories, each about a different character. Each picks up from where the previous one left off, and there is continuity and overlap, but they are somewhat separate stories; eight narrative arcs rather than one overarching one.

The translation, by Amalia Gladhart, is new, but the novel was originally published in 1980. And so, not surprisingly, there is a bit of the old magical realism going on. That term probably now gets used too widely to be helpful — if it ever was — but this is a late C20th South American novel in which magical things occur, so it’s probably fair to use it here.

And although I get annoyed by some of the novels that seem to show magical-realist influence — novels that insert fabulous or improbable events as a rather lazy way of trying to seem more interesting — in this case it works pretty well. Perhaps because it is central to the whole structure and tone of the book: it’s not just being used as a decorative flourish.

Anyway, I don’t have anything very interesting to say (it’s too close to Christmas for thinkfulness), but I did enjoy it, on the whole. Beyond the Islands is my book from Ecuador for the Read The World challenge.

» The picture of the flightless cormorant is by me.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 18: Mountain Katydid

This is an Australian species called the Mountain Katydid, Acripeza reticulata:

Male on the left, female on the right.

Obviously, they’re well camouflaged (the female is easily mistaken for a kangaroo turd, apparently); and they have funky-looking stripy legs. But that’s not why I picked them. No; it’s because when you get too close to them, they do this:

Boo!

Bright colours in insects are often a warning that they taste bad, but presumably it also distracts and disconcerts predators.

It reminds me of those fabulous grasshoppers you find in the Mediterranean, which are almost completely invisible until you nearly step on them and they fly off with a flash of blue or red wings.

» ‘Acripeza reticulata female and male’ is © Mark Santos and used under a CC by-nc licence. The photo of a katydid with its wings up is from the marvellous Brisbane Insects and Spiders Home Page and is © Peter Chew.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 17: magnetic termites

‘Magnetic termites’ sounds like a very disappointing toy to find at the bottom of your Christmas stocking. But no, they are a real species, Amitermes meridionalis. I don’t have a picture of the insect itself, but I assume it’s just your standard termite: a pallid little wriggly thing. Or thousands and thousands of pallid little wriggly things.

But anyway, with termites it’s all about the mounds. Which can be spectacular: check out this termite mound in Botswana (with giraffe for scale).

These are the mounds made by magnetic termites, in the Litchfield National Park in Australia:

They’re called ‘magnetic’ because the mounds are wide and flat, and they all align themselves north-south. Giving a distinct graveyard look to a group of them together.

I love how different they look depending on the season and lighting.

They aren’t actually magnetic, because they aren’t aligned along the earth’s magnetic field; instead they’re aligned according to where the sun rises and sets. Google doesn’t provide a consensus answer for why they build their mounds this way; it is something to do with minimising exposure to the heat of the sun, and therefore controlling the temperature, but there are plenty of termites living in very hot conditions, and most build round mounds.

The fact that the magnetic termites live in an area which is sometimes flooded is probably important, but again it’s not entirely clear why that makes a difference. Whatever the reason, the result is spectacular.

The closest relative of the termites are cockroaches. Termites are cockroaches who have built elaborate societies by working together for a higher cause. Admittedly most of them are anaemic stunted slaves, working themselves to death to further the interests of a feudal autocracy… but it’s still a remarkable example of the power of cooperation.

Enjoying insects is mainly about noticing the little things, having an eye for detail; not just appreciating the sweep of the landscape, but also the square meter of land directly in front of your feet. Occasionally, though, insects can construct a landscape on a massive scale.

» ‘Magnetic termite mounds’ is © Peter Nijenhuis. ‘Magnetic Termite Mounds – Litchfield National Park – Northern Territory – Australia’ is © Flight9774; both are used under CC by-nc-nd licences. ‘DSC07400’ is © Blake Chen and used under a by-nc-sa licence. ‘Magnetic Termite Mounds’ is © factoids and used under a by-nc licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 16: Elephant Hawkmoth

Probably the single most glamorous moth in the UK, this is an elephant hawkmoth:

What a stunner.

It’s like a furry stick of rock.

And as well as one of the most amazing moths in the UK, it’s also about the most amazing caterpillar:

It’s a monster! Every year I hope to find one of these in the rosebay willowherb in the garden, but no luck so far.

» ‘Elephant Hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor’ is © Drinker Moth and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. ‘Garden mothing 2011 #18, 25 May’ is © nutmeg66 and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. ‘elephant hawkmoth 6’ is © kantc2 and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects day 15: Aspidomorpha miliaris

I found Udo Schmidt’s amazing beetles photographs on Flickr and was like a kid in a candy store. I was very tempted by this longhorn beetle which looks like it was upholstered for a 1970s bachelor pad, or this one which is clearly a piece of military hardware. Or this scarab, apparently on his way back from a rave.

But then I found the leaf beetles, the Chrysomelidae. This is the insect of the day: Aspidomorpha miliaris, from India.

Amazing. Let’s not stop there! Here’s a bonus leaf beetle, Eugenysa colossa, from Peru:

And one more for luck, also from Peru, Stolas discoides:

All pictures are © Udo Schmidt and used under a CC by-sa licence.

 

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 14: Beautiful Demoiselle

This is the Beautiful Demoiselle, Calopteryx virgo, a kind of damselfly. It is apparently found in Britain, although I’ve only seen its less spectacular but still gorgeous relative, the Banded Demoiselle.

So shiny.

» ‘Blue Damselfly’ is © Annamaria Kaiser and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. ‘Bosbeekjuffer – Beautiful Demoiselle male 2’ is © Arend Vermazeren and used under a CC by licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 13: cochineal

Cochineal is Dactylopius coccus, a rather undistinguished looking scale insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus.

But when you squish it, it does this:

Which means you can do this with it:

When it’s a dye, we call it carmine. Apparently it’s not used much for fabrics or paints anymore, since the invention of artificial dyes which are cheaper and more colour-fast. But it is still widely used in food, not least because it can be labelled as a completely natural additive.

And if you’re creeped out by the idea that your sweets, strawberry yoghurt and tandoori chicken contain bug extract: the artificial alternatives are made from coal-tar sludge. Which you may or may not think sounds more appetising. Personally I’m able to put it out of my mind at least long enough to eat a tube of Smarties.*

* By which I mean Smarties, obviously, rather than Smarties. Although according to Wikipedia, the UK Smarties no longer contain cochineal anyway: instead they use red cabbage. Which has less of an ick factor, but isn’t exactly an ingredient that brings to mind sugary childhood treats (the US Smarties still have the crushed bugs, though).

» ‘Dactylopius coccus (Barlovento)’ is © Frank Vincentz and used under a CC by-sa licence. ‘Ground Cochineal’ is © Travis S and used under a CC by-nc licence. ‘March 2009 Etsy update, pinks’ is © knitting iris and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 12: velvet ant

Perhaps velvet ants are one of those things that seem especially cool because we don’t have them around here.* But come on, it’s a black and red furry ant! Surely that’s cool by anyone’s standards.

This one is Dasymutilla coccineohirta, apparently.

They’re not actually ants, they’re wingless wasps, and they have such a painful sting that their colloquial name is cow killer. A name which, admittedly, passes right through ‘cool’ and into ‘cheesy’.

This one is Dasymutilla occidentalis:

They are such fab looking things.

* To be strictly accurate, there are actually some velvet ants in Europe, and even a few in the UK. But I’ve never seen them, and they aren’t nearly as spectacular as the black and red species from North America I’ve illustrated here.

» Velvet ant is © Ken-ichi Ueda and used under a CC by-nc licence. Cow killer is © Zack Bittner and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 11: Uropyia meticulodina

I know I’ve already done a couple of mimicry posts, but I just never get tired of them (check out this beetle pretending to be a fly!). And this one, which I discovered while googling for pictures of something else, is just wonderful.

It is, obviously, a moth. And there are lots of moths that look like dead leaves. But the way it creates a convincingly three-dimensional illusion of a dead leaf curled round in on itself, just by the patterning of the wing, is stunning. It may not be the best camouflage in the natural world — it’s not quite up there with the frogfish, or the octopus — but I can’t think of a comparably amazing bit of trompe l’oeil.

One more for luck:

So fab.

» The first photo is © Wei-Chun (維君) Chang (張). The second is © Shipher (士緯) Wu (吳). Both are used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 10: cicadas

You might have to turn the volume up on your computer to get a sense of just how loud these things can be in real life.

This is cicadas with a bit of spider monkey in the background:

This time with howler monkeys:

And with a local guide:

I always thought they made the noise by rubbing their wings together, but according to Wikipedia, they have a stiff membrane in the abdomen which clicks when pulled out of shape by the cicada’s muscles, and again when allowed to return to the original shape. The sound is then amplified by a partially hollow body.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 8: Death’s-head Hawkmoth

This is the Death’s-head Hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos. So called because marking on the thorax looks a bit like a skull.

It features on the poster for Silence of the Lambs although, disappointingly, they edited the image to make the skull much more obvious.

The resemblance is (presumably) pure coincidence, but along with the large size, dark colours, and habit of squeaking audibly when disturbed, it it has given the moth a particular sinister aura, reflected in its Latin name. In Greek mythology there are three Fates: Clotho, who spins the thread of life, Lachesis, who measures the thread, and Atropos who ends the life of each mortal by cutting their thread at the ordained moment.

Which is a hell of a symbolic burden to place on the shoulders of an impressive but harmless moth. [do moths have shoulders?]

They are also known for raiding the hives of honeybees. Which seems suicidal. No-one seems quite sure why they don’t get stung to death; suggestions include the fact that they are covered in hair and scales; that they may have some resistance to bee venom; and, most intriguingly, that they smell like bees.

» The first photo is © Pierangelo Zavatarelli and used under a CC by-nc licence. The second, from Wikipedia, was taken by Siga who has released it into the public domain.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 7: Urocerus gigas & Rhyssa persuasoria

This magnificent, scary-looking but completely harmless insect is a female Greater Horntail or Giant Woodwasp, Urocerus gigas:

The woodwasps are a groups of sawflies (members of the hymenoptera along with bees, wasps and ants) which lay their eggs in wood. You can actually see the ovipositor inserted into the wood, as well as the more dramatic orangey spike at the back of the insect, which I guess protects the ovipositor when it’s not in use? I’ve tried googling but I’m not sure. It’s certainly not a sting.

One amazing thing I did learn from Google though: the woodwasps actually inject a fungus along with their eggs, and the fungus infects the wood and serves to pre-digest it, making it easier for the larvae to eat.

This even more spectacular hymenopterid is Rhyssa persuasoria, the Giant Ichneumon:

She is also using her ovipositor to drill through solid wood and lay her eggs; but her young don’t eat wood. No, they eat the larvae of various other insects, including, commonly, our friend Urocerus gigas. In fact, she stings the woodwasp grub to paralyse it, and her own larvae eat it alive from the inside.

The whole thing is amazing: the ability of these insects to drill through wood, the fact that the woodwasps inject fungus to help their young, the way the ichneumon wasps manage to find where the larvae are inside the wood (a combination of scent and vibration, apparently), and the way they paralyse them for their own young. All done by instinct.

» Urocerus gigas is © Nigel Jones and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. The photo of Rhyssa persuasoria is © Paweł Strykowski and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects day 6: a leafhopper

The last couple of insects have been interesting rather than beautiful, so here’s a real stunner. I don’t actually have a species name for this one — I just found it on Flickr by searching for bugs — but it was photographed by the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory, and their description of the photo reads:

‘Leafhopper, Sharpshooter Collected in November 2012 Dominican Republic at high elevations in central highlands, photgraphed in hand sanitizer in a quartz cuvette. Yes, those are the real colors.’

Here’s another shot of the same beastie (you can click through for larger versions of either photo):

Wow.

» Leafhopper cuvette, U, side, Dominican Republic_2012-11-28-15, and Leafhopper cuvette, U, back are © the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory and used under a CC attribution licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects day 5: Poecilobothrus nobilitatus

It’s tempting to just concentrate on the showiest insect families — butterflies, moths, beetles, dragonflies — at the expense of the incredible variety of flies, bugs, fleas, ants, termites, cockroaches and so on.

But let’s have at least one fly. There are lots of things with ‘fly’ in the name — butterfly, caddisfly, scorpionfly and so on — but the true flies, the diptera, are the ones with just one pair of wings: house flies, bluebottles, mosquitoes, gnats, midges, craneflies, horse flies, hoverflies and so on.

This particular fly is Poecilobothrus nobilitatus.

You can see that it’s a bit prettier than some fly species, but it’s not exactly a showstopper.

So why I have I picked it for my advent calendar? Because it dances.

This video was taken at my garden pond, in June, three years ago (I think it’s the right species!). Look particularly in the top right corner.

You can see a couple of males flashing their wings towards a female. OK, it’s not the most dramatic courtship display in nature, it doesn’t compare to birds of paradise or capercaillies; but still, it’s a neat thing to find in a suburban garden, all these little flies earnestly lekking on the lily pads.

» Langbeinfliege Poecilobothrus nobilitatus 110615 005.jpg is © Jürgen Mangelsdorf and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 4: pygmy mole cricket

This is a pygmy mole cricket:

It’s just 6mm long, which is one reason why it looks a bit weird, even for a grasshoppery-crickety thingy.

I heard of these South African critters for the first time today via some brand new science, as reported in Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science blog, and in Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True.

So what’s so cool about pygmy mole crickets? well, they can jump straight out of the water.

Which, if you’ve ever seen a bee stuck in a swimming pool, is sort of cool.

Check out the two blogs I linked to for more details.

» Photos and video by Michael Burrows.

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