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September 21 2013

April 25 2012

Photographer Natacha Merritt's best shot

'This is a spider's erection. I boiled it in acid then added extra lighting for a romantic feel'

Spiders have fantastic genitals, even in their non-extended state. Few people have ever seen an erect spider penis, though. Actually, their penises come in pairs called pedipalps: the males ejaculate onto a silk web and suck up the sperm with their pedipalps. Then they try to mate with females, a complex process that often involves a sort of high-speed dance since the females are usually twice their size – at least – and very likely to attempt to eat them.

It's a great mystery what turns a spider on, but I was lucky enough to have an arachnologist friend at the California Academy of Sciences who knew the secret: boil them in a bath of lactic acid, cool and then wait. We carried out this elaborate process, which took about an hour, on a large dead wolf spider; it would be difficult to do anything similar with a live spider, not least because you couldn't pin it down to hold its pedipalps in the desired position for a shot.

After its 3mm pedipalps had expanded, you could see all these big bulbs and structures. Scientists still don't know what some of them do. When it had stabilised, I took 60 images through a microscope at 50x magnification with a Leica camera attached. Then, on a computer, I merged them all into a composite shot: if you just saw one layer of the image, only a little hair would be in focus.

I'm sure pictures of spider erections have appeared before in scientific journals, but I added extra lighting to give the shot a romantic feel. I think evolution is one of the most beautiful art forms. Since biologists wouldn't shoot spiders in this way, it's probably the first ever artistic shot of a spider erection..

CV

Born: San Francisco, 1977

Studied: Biology at San Francisco State University. Self taught photography.

Influences: Otto DixEO Wilsonand William Eberhard

High point: "Seeing my science and art merge into something greater."

Low point: "My last semester of physics. I had to finish it to do the classes I wanted. It was very difficult."

Top tip: "The more you know about your subject, the more beauty there is to capture."

Sexual Selection by Natacha Merritt is published on 7 May


guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


August 12 2011

David Measures obituary

Artist inspired by the natural world who was the first to paint live butterflies in flight

Paintings of butterflies used to be done entirely from dead specimens. David Measures, who has died aged 73 of complications from leukaemia, was the first artist to paint them flying in their natural habitats. He painted all of the British species, from the common cabbage white to the extremely rare large blue. David was a pioneering original in world terms – not just a superb naturalist, but also an inspired painter who extended the language of art.

David was born in Warwick. His childhood was idyllic. The family lived in the tiny Old Toll Cottage, tucked below Warwick Castle on the banks of the river Avon. As a boy, he spent every spare moment exploring the countryside, rowing and swimming in the river. Nature called to him all his life. He expressed it beautifully: "There is a magnet in me drawn to the subtle sense-aura of wild freedom, the porous exchange apparent in wild places and the richness of variety and subtlety which I miss inside a building."

He had always drawn, and did so outdoors from the age of seven. When the time came to decide whether to pursue his interest in the science of natural history or develop his love of art, he chose the latter. The need to praise was stronger in him than the need to analyse. He studied at colleges in mid-Warwickshire, then Bournemouth, and finally the Slade School of Art in London. Like many of his contemporaries, he was excited by the panache of postwar American artists, and his work became increasingly abstract.

In 1964 he took up a lecturing post at Nottingham College of Art (now Nottingham Trent University) and settled in a 15th-century cottage in the nearby town of Southwell, with his wife, Christine, also an artist, and their daughter, Sally, soon to be followed by their son, Simon. Like the medieval stonemasons who carved the uniquely realistic foliage in Southwell Minster's splendid chapterhouse, David found his inspiration in the lush local countryside.

It was in the late 1960s that his particular interest in butterflies emerged. What drew him to them was his fascination with the effects of colour on the retina, a concern of many op artists at that time. As he began making studies of the iridescence on their wings, he found himself drawn into these creatures' lives, wondering what made them chase each other, what they did in the rain, where they went at night. The intimacy he had felt with nature as a child welled up inside him. He wrote of those rare times when "after a period of watching, your particular butterfly character appears to become reconciled to your presence, seems to allow a trust to exist, whereby both of you take part, each functioning in your own way, freely and co-existent".

It became his life's work to paint these moments, and he developed remarkable skills to capture them. You have to be very quick and agile to paint butterflies in flight, and your equipment must be light: a drawing pad, or sheets of paper clipped to a board, and a tiny box of paints. David learned to do without brushes and water. Amazingly, his delicate, energetic paintings were mostly done with his fingertips and spit; fine details were picked out with his nails. He used a child's multicoloured biro to record his observations of what was going on, because he wasn't creating pictures to hang on walls, but experiencing life as fully as one can. He wrote of the importance of being able to be absolutely still. He told of how one day he was standing in a clump of heather, wrapped up in an overcoat and scarf, when two walkers passed by. "What's that scarecrow doing there?" he heard one ask, as he remained motionless, smiling inside.

Slowly, but surely, his work gained a reputation in the field of natural history (though recognition by the art world still awaits). In 1973 he was featured in the programme David's Meadow, for David Bellamy's BBC TV series Bellamy's Britain. His book Bright Wings of Summer, illustrated with paintings and vivid texts, came out in 1976. He spent every moment he could out in the field, painting and observing all the British species, producing page after page of wonderful coloured studies: butterfly days, each dated and timed from dawn till dusk – a remarkable diary of life in nature. These were later bound in yearbooks, and one was published in 1996 as Butterfly Season: 1984.

David's interest in the natural world widened, and he painted the life of a wood and an old orchard as they changed through the seasons. The fruits of his four-year observation of a hobby falcon – a surprise visitor to Southwell – are to be published by subscription in his memory. He taught regularly at a summer school in Scotland run by his friend John Busby, based around the Bass Rock, and inspired new generations of wildlife artists. Defying a congenital disorder that made him unable to sweat, he began to travel regularly to Spain and Italy, excited by the brilliant southern light and unfamiliar species.

He also began to paint landscapes for their own sake. Experimental as ever, he developed an original technique using small rollers and stencils to create luminous yet rigorous designs that capture permanence and transience. These little, jewel-like paintings open in the mind's eye like butterfly's wings, letting us glimpse patterns of being that outlast death.

This work gained a deeper resonance after David's first bout of leukaemia in 2003. His subsequent paintings of Cressbrook Dale in Derbyshire, where he had been painting regularly since 1993, chart a remarkable re-emergence of the two aspects of his life, art and nature, infused with his sheer joy at being alive. People lucky enough to know him felt uplifted by his exuberance.

He is survived by Christine, Sally and Simon, and four grandchildren.

• David Guy Measures, painter, born 22 November 1937; died 4 August 2011


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


May 05 2011

Are butterflies the UK's most beautiful endangered species? | Dan Flenley

Half of our butterflies are under threat of extinction, and more than 70% are in decline – capture their beauty and share your pictures of them on our Flickr group

A cautious flap; a gentle flutter. Quivering wings and tentative antennae. Striking black and white; brightest blue and red; creamy yellow, iridescent green. A carnival of colours, a parade of personalities, an intriguing selection of shades and textures: our butterflies are with us again.

Once described as "self-propelled flowers", what butterflies do is no less fascinating than the gowns they wear. They feed, fly and fight, they court and pair. They get up to strange things in mud puddles and show all the investment skill of your average Duncan Bannatyne in finding the right place for their eggs. They even metamorphose.

Most of the UK's butterflies spend the majority of the year as caterpillars or chrysalises. They wait till spring or summer to make the transition to a relatively brief adult life. Some, though, overwinter as hibernating adults before emerging in time for flowers and sunshine. (Among these are well-known species such as the peacock, with its Impressionist blue eye-spots.) Yet others – including the painted lady – migrate here to enjoy the British summer.

To indulge in some butterfly photography this May, a good back garden is no mean place to start. Nectar plants such as perennial wallflower and ragged-robin will attract species including peacocks and large ("cabbage") and small whites. The first brood of the tiny, energetic holly blue is easy to find (the clue is in the name) in more southerly parts of the country, if not so easy to photograph. The main arrival of red admirals should be underway by late May.

Venturing a little further afield, wild, open places with rough, "messy" vegetation are excellent for getting to know butterflies such as small copper, common blue and orange tip.

Wetter areas are home to the silken surfaces of green-veined whites, while some heathlands host the dazzling green hairstreak. Go somewhere scrubby and you might also see a brimstone, a simply exquisite imitation of a strongly-veined leaf.

Head to one of the country's special butterfly places and – if the weather plays along – you will have so much more to take in. Combine the spectacular, shining adonis blue (late May) and chocolate-and-marshmallows grizzled skipper, with big landscapes at Fontmell Down or Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Match the artsy underwing of the pearl-bordered fritillary with the breathtaking views from the Morecambe Bay Limestones, just below the Lake District. Norfolk sites such as Hickling Broad will see probably our most photogenic butterfly – the swallowtail – begin to emerge at the end of the month.

Butterfly Conservation maintains a network of nature reserves specially managed for threatened butterflies and moths, and would be delighted to tell you more about sites in your area.

Good butterfly shots are made that much easier by choosing the right day and time. A hot day with full sun is not ideal, as the subjects will be so busy zipping about that they won't have time to stop for pictures. Choose a warm day with spells of both cloud and sunshine. Butterflies have a late-afternoon slow-down which offers a handy viewing alternative to a 5am start.

Use a long lens – it will benefit both you and the butterfly by allowing you to keep your distance. A less intrusive approach means more shots for the photographer and, importantly, less stress for the star of the show. The reduced depth of focus on the long lens will also help zero the focus in on the butterfly. The higher shutter speed you'll need may, though, make getting enough light difficult.

While the colourful upper-sides of our best-loved species may be instantly familiar, the rest of their bodies hold reward, too. The underwings of the vanessids – the red admiral's family – possess a cryptic magnificence.

The blues have peculiarly furry bodies and rather cute faces. Caterpillars and pupae furnish further realms of opportunity, and the curious world of butterfly eggs poses a fine challenge for fans of the seriously macro.

Half of our butterflies are considered threatened, and over 70% are currently declining. This is all the more disconcerting if we consider that butterflies are not only precious parts in the intricately-wrought fabric of our natural environment, but also valuable indicators of how that whole fabric is doing. We ignore them at no small cost.

How to help? One way is by inspiring others with the beauty of butterflies. Make a point of getting out this month and capturing their radiance on camera.

Share your photos of butterflies on our Flickr group throughout May - we'll feature the best on guardian.co.uk, and maybe the print edition of the Guardian too

• Dan Flenley is a media volunteer for Butterfly Conservation's Lancashire branch.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


February 11 2010

Mexico: Monarch Butterfly Migration in the Americas

Between Mexico, Northern United States, and Canada there is a very unique phenomenon that reminds many of how miraculous nature can be. This astonishing feat is made by the monarch butterflies, which are insects that span the life of three to four generations to get from one country to another.

Mariposa Monarca picture by flickr user Gustavo (lu7frb)

Mariposa Monarca picture by flickr user Gustavo (lu7frb) and used under a Creative Commons license.

In the blog Destinos Inolvidables [es] (Unforgettable Destinations), monarch butterflies are described as:

La mariposa monarca, además de su gran belleza, se caracteriza por su resistencia y longevidad, pues mientras otras especies de mariposas tienen un ciclo vital de 24 días, la monarca llega a vivir hasta nueve meses, es decir 12 veces más.

The monarch butterfly, apart of its beauty, is characterized by its resistance and its longevity, while some other butterfly species have a life cycle of 24 days, a monarch butterfly can live up to 9 months, meaning 12 times longer.

Every year at the end of October, millions of monarch butterflies arrive to forests in Michoacan and the State of México in Mexico after flying approximately 4,000 km from the Northern US and Canada. Inhabitants of the region and tourists come to witness the large number of butterflies in the forest, in places known as sanctuaries. At the blog Tips de Viajero [es] (Traveler's Tips), the experience of visiting a sanctuary is explained:

Un magnífico paseo, y bastante cansado, pero llegar a la cumbre y ser testigo del vuelo de millones de mariposas a tu alrededor, es indescriptible. Los niños se maravillan y los adultos recobramos la capacidad de asombro: no cabe duda que la naturaleza es sabia.

A magnificent trip, very tiring, but when you get to the top and you witness millions of butterflies flying around you, it is indescribable. Kids get amazed and the adults regain our capacity for astonishment: nature is wise, there is no doubt about it.

Video by DavidDJC84:

This event goes back to ancient times, as there exist admiration testimonies. Even in Mexican archaeological sites, sculptures and paintings of Monarch butterflies have been found. Sadly, because of deforestation and brutal weather changes, butterflies are finding it harder to survive. According to El Universal newspaper, in the beginning of February, 30% of the monarch butterflies in one of the most important national sanctuaries, Santuario Piedra Herrada [es], died from a strong cold front in the region.

However, this migration phenomenon continues strong today. One of the most typical festivities in Mexico is Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), it is when Mexicans commemorate the memory of their beloved ones that have passed on. An indigenous culture, the Mazahua people, believe that the arrival of monarch butterflies every October represent the souls of the dead, as they also believe they bring a message between the gods and the Earth.

In the blog Rojo Mariposa [es] (Red Butterfly) this incident is mentioned:

Además de ser considerada como un ser mágico en mi país, por llegar en las fechas en que según la tradición de Día de Muertos, llegan también las almas de los santos difuntos.
¿Ahora entienden por qué me fascina tanto esta maravilla?

Apart of being considered a magical being in my country, because it arrives around the dates of the traditional Day of the Dead, the souls of deceased people also arrive. Now you understand why I am fascinated by this wonder?
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