University of Maryland Newsdesk.www.newsdesk.umd.edu
For Immediate Release
Picture Perfect Bugs
University of Maryland psychology professor David Yager studies the evolution of hearing in insects. He also sheds new light on his research subjects with some amazing photographs.
Yager's photo of a Cuban cockroach (left) was so good, it won second place for photography in the 2006 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the journal Science. Yager's photo and the other winners are published in the September 22 issue of Science and on this NSF Website: http://nsf.gov/news/special_reports/scivis/index.jsp?id=win2006.
Here, Yager describes the complex computer photo reconstruction process he used to create the winning image of the cockroach and other insects, and how photography helps his science.
What are you looking for in your close-up pictures of insects?
Yager: I often start a photo session with a specific goal like documenting some anatomical structure for a research project or creating images for teaching. However, just as often, I end up taking photos simply because I saw something interesting about the animal, or saw a combination of lighting and subject that might make a good photo. Or, to be less formal, work morphs into play. That's what happened in this case.
What is the insect in the winning picture?
Yager: It's a species of cockroach from the Carribean that is also found in southern Florida. It has various common names like Cuban cockroach and green banana roach. The scientific name is Panchlora nivea. Adults are less than a inch long and are excellent flyers. Cockroaches are close relatives of the praying mantises that are our main research animal, so we often use the roaches for comparisons of anatomy, behavior, and nervous system function. They are also excellent to use in undergraduate teaching labs. We keep colonies of several cockroach species.
How did you get those amazing close-ups?
Yager: The cockroach is lying on its back on a bed of small glass beads, which creates some of the strange lighting in the photo. I had one very bright fiber optic light shining up through the animal and others to provide the surface lighting. This is all under a microscope with magnifications of 10 to 50 times actual size. The sharpness comes from a technique in which you take many digital images at different visual 'depths' (there were 10-12 in this case) and than a computer assembles the final photo using only the parts of each image that are in focus. This is one of my favorite 'toys' - it has helped tremendously with my research, photographing very small complex insect body parts. Using this equipment is like going on an adventure - never quite sure what you'll see.
How do you get a cockroach to lie quietly on its back in a bowl of glass beads?
Yager: Several alternatives: stroke its belly, sweet talk, Mozart. My personal favorite, however, is drugs.
How long did it take you to get the prize winning shot?
Yager: Hard to say, because the set up evolved over a couple of hours. Creating just the right lighting was the single most time-consuming part, as it usually is. Small changes in the angle of one of the lights can make a huge difference in what you see, sometimes revealing structures you couldn't detect at all before.
How does photography help you with the science of your research, beyond simple documentation?
Yager: It's absolutely crucial, even when the project deals with behavior or physiology, instead of studying body structure. It really is true that photography focuses your vision in unexpected ways, and many times I've seen key features in photos, or while taking them, that I'd never noticed during an experiment or while watching the animal. After I started using the computer photo reconstruction system, I finally understood the complex 3-D structure of some insect ears that I'd been working with for many years. We also use high-speed photography to stop very fast behaviors so we can see what's really going on.
What's your favorite picture you've taken?
Yager: There are a number of insect portraits that I like. The Eremiaphila and the Phyllocrania photos are certainly among my favorites. It's worth looking closely at insects. They can be truly beautiful, not just butterflies and colorful beetles, but even 'lowly' cockroaches. But some of my all-time favorites are of animals in zoos. I spent a couple of years taking zoo pictures, and a few that I like best are portraits of animals that somehow convey their distinct personalities along with a feeling of intimacy and often a touch of sadness.
Read more about David Yager's research
and see more amazing photos.