Being at the top of the food chain doesn’t mean you’ve got it all figured out. Sure, it’s nice to slither through the woods, swim in the water, or lurk in a burrow, knowing that nothing can eat you. But like everything else in this world, being a predator has its bugs. Literally.
I’ve selected a few photos from my archives to document that even fierce predators aren’t untouchable. There is, in fact, a group of animals that stands a little apart on the food chain: parasites!
(If you don’t like creepy-crawlies, best to click away to a cuddlier article now.)
Just imagine. The ground on which the pyramid stands is made up of soil, then photosynthesizing plants, followed by consumers of higher orders. And at the very top, the apex predators. Matter and its associated energy flow continuously from the ground to the top. At the same time, however, the pyramid is being eroded at every moment by parasites – organisms that simply take a bite out of other creatures without necessarily killing them.
The role of the parasite is a very popular one in nature. We don’t have to look far for an example. Humans have a wide range of parasites. A large proportion of them are parasites that belong to us alone. We don’t share them with other organisms.
It’s the same with other creatures. Every living thing has a large number of parasites of its own – including the parasites themselves. Para-ception!
Consider the photo above, for example. I was cruising the waters of one of the Amazon’s many tributaries in a motorized canoe, mostly looking for birds to photograph, when the caiman caught my eye. Turning the motor off, I approached the resting animal.
I didn’t want the caiman to dive, so I kept my distance. I had a 300mm f/4E PF VR lens on my Nikon D500. The focal length was still not long enough, so I quickly attached a 1.4x teleconverter. This gave me enough reach to start shooting.
Earlier I had noticed through the binoculars that the caiman’s head was covered in parasitic flies. Their blood-filled abdomens were visible from a distance. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like this. The black caiman I had photographed earlier in a similar location was similarly parasitized.
These flies seem to find their hosts only on the water. None of the little blood-sucking creatures tried to attack me on land. But when I swam in the river and turned into a caiman, the situation changed. At that moment, I had to face their attempts to feed on my tasty, exotic, nutritious Central European blood.
Another pleasant encounter of a similar nature took place in Australia. In northern Queensland, I was searching the rainforest for the Buff-breasted Paradise-kingfisher. But can you see an entirely different animal in the photo above? I almost didn’t! It’s a really big Scrub Python.
Although the snake had almost escaped my attention, it certainly hadn’t escaped the attention of the dozens of mosquitoes that had settled on its head. Snakes, like all animals, exhale carbon dioxide. And that’s what mosquitoes can detect from tens of meters away. Great camouflage doesn’t matter here.
After taking the wide-angle photo above, I swapped to my Nikon 400mm f/2.8 to get some close-ups of its parasite-infested head. I lay down on the ground and searched for a suitable angle through the obscuring vegetation.
In my excitement, I hadn’t noticed that another parasite was slowly moving towards me. This time, the leech’s sensitive sensors picked up my scent. It was one thing after another! Some people would be freaked out, and I understand – but as a biologist, I couldn’t have been happier.
Life in the wild is no fairy tale, so this story doesn’t have a happy ending either. At least not for the last of the trio of predators I want to introduce to you today. The big forest spiders, the tarantulas, may not be very popular with humans. But try to feel for this poor creature. Its story is infinitely worse than that of the caiman or the python.
In the mountain forest of Ecuador, I witnessed this fascinating scene. A huge blue wasp dragging an even bigger tarantula with it. This wasp belongs to the genus Pepsis and, with a body length of up to 5 cm, is one of the largest wasps in the world. Its awe-inspiring sting can cause some of the most intense pain of any insect.
The wasps feed on tarantulas, but it’s not the adults that eat them – it’s the larvae. The wasp paralyzes the tarantula by stinging it. Then, the immobilized tarantula is dragged to the wasp’s burrow, where it lays a single egg on the spider’s abdomen. This later hatches into a larva, which burrows into the spider’s gut. It then eats the spider alive, cleverly avoiding vital organs. Nature is no picnic.
The so-called Tarantula Hawks are not actually parasites. They are parasitoids. This strategy does not spare its host. Well, don’t you feel sorry for the poor tarantula? Incidentally, adult wasps feed exclusively on plant food – nectar. So, maybe you could say they grow out of their parasitic ways.
Naturally, a macro lens was needed to capture this scene. In this case, I used the Sigma 105mm f/2.8. It wasn’t easy to lie on the ground and keep up with a determined wasp dragging its prey. Both kept disappearing into the vegetation. Fortunately, there was a small, relatively bare area with little rough terrain, and I took advantage of it.
As you can see, even the life of a predator is not without its pitfalls. On the contrary, the rule of “eat or be eaten” applies without exception. Sometimes, parasites only take their share bit by bit. Other times, all the host leaves behind is an empty exoskeleton. Life is hard, no matter what role a creature plays in it. But I think it’s endlessly fascinating, too.
Excellent Article, and terrific photos. Shows the passion, hard work and the knowledge that goes into creating such stunning images!
Thank you so much Amar for your kind comment. I’m glad you like the photos and the article. I’ll add two more ingredients that play a big role in photographing these things. They are luck and time spent in the field.
Thank you! What an informative and high interest article. My grandkids were fascinated.
Thank you so much, Dan. Also for sharing my story with your grandkids.
Great photos… I couldn’t do it.. I’d be afraid to even lay on the ground.. lol
Thank you David for your kind comment. I actually hesitate more often before I lie down on the grass in a city park. I’m more likely to find an unpleasant (smelly) surprise there. Although my experience with hungry chiggers visiting in large numbers the area between my belly and thighs has been one of the worst so far.
Eeek! Creepy! What did you do about the leech? Great photos, despite the ick factor. I think you are an amazing photographer.
Thank you so much Elaine for your kind words. The leech was too slow to let me share my excess calories with it.
Stunning photos. I am glad to have also witnessed a similar scene with such a wasp and a (much smaller) spider in the north of Colombia. Also, the D500 and the 400 2.8 Combo with the head of the snake is just wow. Thanks for sharing! Do you happen to have a Youtube Channel? Kind regards from Munich, Felix
Hi Felix, hello to Germany. You are right that a similar story is happening in different sizes not only in South America but even here in Europe. The world of the little creatures is full of incredible dramas, comparable to those on African safaris. Thank you for the suggestion about the YouTube channel. I’m not thinking about it yet, but a colleague and I are planning a podcast on nature photography. However, it will be in a language that few people will understand, i.e. Czech. In the meantime, I would be very happy if you stay a Photography Life reader. Have a nice day.
Great and instructive article and photos!
Thank you Danny, I’m glad you liked the article.