Photos: Incredible insect photos

loading photos...
  1. Robber fly

    Nature photographer Thomas Shahan specializes in amazing portraits of tiny insects. It isn't easy. Shahan says that this Robber Fly (Holcocephala fusca), for instance, is "skittish" and doesn't like its picture taken. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Jumping spider

    Shahan found this adult male Paraphidippus aurantius jumping spider at Red Bud Valley Nature Preserve near Catoosa, Okla. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Damselfly

    This close-up of the head of a damselfly is Shahan's first of this species. "Generally, these guys won't let you," he said. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Horse fly

    Shahan caught this female Tabanus horse fly in a toothpick container, took the insect home, then smeared some honey on a stone (in foreground) to get it to stand still for its close-up. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grasshopper

    A close-up look at the head of a grasshopper, courtesy of photographer Thomas Shahan. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Female jumping spider

    This female jumping spider (Platycryptus undatus) was at least three-fourths an inch long, one of the largest Shahan had seen before he spotted a 1-inch one nearby. Unfortunately, it jumped and disappeared. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Wet bee

    Shahan found this this wet bee face sitting immobile on top of a flower. "I don't think he was dead," he said, "maybe just too cold and wet to fly away." (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Ladybug

    Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Fortunately, this Cycloneda munda didn't, at least not before Shahan snapped its picture. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Praying mantis

    This mantis, about an inch and a half long, was chewing on its own foot for some reason when Shahan photographed it. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. White face fly

    This white face fly (Archytas apicifer) was quite a large representative of its species. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Weevil

    This tiny weevil, around 4-5mm or so, was captured atop a flower. A weevil is a type of beetle. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Green sweat bee

    Shahan said this was one of the first "decent photos" he had gotten of a green sweat bee, of the family Halictidae. This one was quite small, about 10mm in length. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Striped lynx spider

    Shahan found this male striped lynx spider (Oxyopes salticus) on the railing of his own deck. He said the male is more difficult to photograph than the female of the species. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Katydid

    The head of a katydid nymph (Scudderia). Shahan believes that the insects lose most of these vibrant colors by the time they become adult. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Striped horse fly

    Shahan captured the image of this male striped horse fly (Tabanus lineola) on a white railing, which reflected his flash, providing good lighting. He said it made bizarre movements with its legs, "totally different than any other fly I have seen." (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Crane fly

    This was the first tiger crane fly (Nephrotoma ferruginea) that Shahan was able to photograph up close; normally, he said, they were "just too flighty." (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Harvestman

    This harvestman (Palpatores) was photographed at Devil's Den state park in Arkansas. Although it is an eight-legged arachnid (one of this one's legs is missing), it is not a spider. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Female jumping spider

    This close-up of a female jumping spider (Maevia inclemens) clearly captures the vivid colors of its eyes. (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Say 'cheese'

    Photographer Thomas Shahan hard at work in the wild, getting a shot of a robber fly in August 2009.

    See more of Shahan's work (Thomas Shahan) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

By
updated 11/16/2009 5:52:31 PM ET 2009-11-16T22:52:31

Insects may have tiny brains, but they can perform some seriously impressive feats of mental gymnastics.

According to a growing number of studies, some insects can count, categorize objects, even recognize human faces — all with brains the size of pinheads.

Despite many attempts to link the volume of an animal's brain with the depth of its intelligence, scientists now propose that it's the complexity of connections between brain cells that matters most. Studying those connections — a more manageable task in a little brain than in a big one — could help researchers understand how bigger brains, including those of humans, work.

Figuring out how a relatively small number of cells work together to process complex concepts could also lead to "smarter" computers that do some of the same tasks.

"The question is: If these insects can do these things with such little brains, what does anything need a big brain for?" said Lars Chittka, who presented his arguments along with colleague Jeremy Niven in the journal Current Biology. "Bigger isn't necessarily better, and in some cases it could be quite the opposite."

Because we are intelligent animals with big brains, people have long assumed that big brains are smarter brains. Yet, scientists have found scant evidence to support that view, Chittka said. Studies that have made those connections are fraught with problems. "If you try many measurements," he said, "Eventually you will find one that shows a correlation."

There's a lot of evidence, on the other hand, that overall size is irrelevant when it comes to brain power. Among humans, individuals with larger noggins don't have higher IQs. Whales, with brains that weigh up to 20 pounds and have more than 200 billion neurons, are no smarter than people, with our measly 3-pound brains that have just 85 billion neurons.

Eight insects with ‘ick’ factorInstead of contributing intelligence, big brains might just help support bigger bodies, which have larger muscles to coordinate and more sensory information coming in. Like computers, Chittka said, size might add storage capacity but necessarily speed or usefulness. At the same time, it takes a lot of energy to support a big brain.

On a smaller scale, scientists are finally moving past the idea that locusts, ants, bees and other insects are simple machines that respond to events in predictable ways, said Sarah Farris, an evolutionary neurobiologist at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Study after study now shows that insects can, in fact, change their behavior depending on the circumstances.

Honeybees, which have been the focus of Chittka's work, have tiny brains with fewer than a million neurons. Yet, the insects can classify shapes as symmetrical or asymmetrical. They can pick objects based on concepts like "same" or "different." They can also learn to stop flying after a prescribed number of landmarks rather than after a certain distance.

Ants and bees have notoriously complex social systems. Along with other insects, they can move in a surprising number of ways to communicate or get around.

Bees, for example, can sting, scout for food, guard the hive and fan their wings for ventilation, along with more than 50 other behaviors. The insect's behavioral repertoire, in fact, surpasses that of some vertebrates.”

"They are fantastically smart," Chittka said. "Perhaps we are only amazed by this because we think small brains shouldn't be able to do it."

In fact, scientists have calculated that a few hundred neurons should be enough to enable counting. A few thousand neurons could support consciousness. Engineers hope to use that kind of information to design programs that do things like recognize faces from a variety of angles, distances and emotional states. That's something bees can do, but computers still can't.

"Knowing how an insect functions and produces complex behaviors with a brain that's a million-fold smaller than ours makes it a little easier to envision that we might be able to model some of these behaviors," Farris said.

"It's wonderful to see that insects are finally being compared equally with vertebrate animals," she added. "They have smaller brains, but they still have complex enough brains to do these things."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments