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Carl Safina

11 Secrets of Wildlife Photographers

Original image
Carl Safina

There is something about seeing a wild animal—a stalking tiger, soaring hawk, splashing whale, or slithering snake—that captivates the imagination. Yet these creatures are elusive, and it’s not easy to capture their splendor. So how can you get the perfect picture of a wild creature? Luckily, there are people out there who have devoted their lives to the art of wildlife photography, and mental_floss talked to a few who were willing to share their tips.


Florida-based conservation photographer Mac Stone says it’s a misconception that good photographers need top-of-the-line equipment in order to get a good shot. “There’s an old saying that goes, ‘The best camera is the one that’s in your pocket,’” he notes. Stone, who shoots all kinds of wild creatures from American alligators to burrowing owls, says the key is knowing how to use the equipment you have: Read your camera manual and experiment before going out to shoot in the field.


Elephants in Amboseli National Park in Africa. Image credit: Carl Safina

If you want to catch an animal on camera, you need to think like an animal, says Richard Slattery, a Long Island-based professional photographer who has been photographing wild animals for more than 20 years.

“While I’m not a scientist, I’ve spent a lot of time with animal experts who have taught me to look for signs preceding animal action,” he notes. For example, when photographing humpback whales on whale-watching trips, Slattery has learned from whale experts to look for “bubble nets” on the water’s surface. These bubbles of air, exhaled from underwater, always precede a whale surfacing to swallow up fish and plankton—a perfect photo opportunity. Slattery suggests attending public lectures, watching documentaries, and reading books about wildlife to learn how to anticipate animal action.


Besides knowing how to read animal behavior, it’s also critical to know how to read your environment, says Kristofer Rowe, who’s been professionally photographing ospreys and other birds since 2011. Once you know about the species you want to shoot, “you can increase your odds by knowing where and when to position yourself for optimum images,” he notes. Between April and October—osprey season in Connecticut, where he is based—Rowe says he uses the sunrise, tides, and winds to help him find ospreys and craft the perfect shot. The same educational strategies for learning about animal behavior can also be applied to learning about their environment.


Laysan albatross chick and parent. Image credit: Hob Osterlund

Professional wildlife photographer and writer Hob Osterlund has devoted her life to the conservation of one species: the albatross, a large seabird native to Hawaii, the state where she’s based. Albatross face many challenges to their survival, including feral cats, invasive species, ocean plastic, and habitat destruction. To get the best possible photos of these birds, Osterlund says, “Take shots that make people love and respect the animal. They need your help much more than you need an award.”


Ecologist, author, and Safina Center founder/president Carl Safina has been photographing wild animals for decades. Over the years, this Long Island-based wildlife expert has traveled the world amassing thousands of beautiful photos of all kinds of wild creatures, from wolves to walruses. The key, he says, “Is to shoot lots of frames of the same thing; never think you’ve ‘got’ it—you can always get it better. Then, when you’re back home, comb through your images and delete those that don’t work so you can focus on the best images you’ve taken.”


You can expect to get at least a little mud on your shoes when trying to photograph wild animals (they live outside, after all). But Osterlund says you shouldn’t be afraid to really get down and dirty to get the shots you’re after. “I learned from the great Melissa Groo to lie down,” says Osterlund. “Get at eye level [with an animal] as much as possible. Buy elbow pads so you don’t tear your flesh off. Carry a small tarp.”


An incoming osprey. Image credit: Kristofer Rowe

It can be challenging to get a steady shot when on a boat or trying to photograph moving animals (or both), says professional photographer Jodi Frediani. Frediani, who is based in California, spends a lot of time photographing whales and other marine creatures. She says there are many situations where it pays to take advantage of your camera’s pre-focus feature in order to get a clear shot, such as when you’re on a boat. For example, when trying to get photos of humpback whales, Frediani says she’ll “pre-focus where I think a serial breaching will come up next.”


It’s easy to get discouraged in the field if you don’t get the shot you’re looking for on the first try. But Stone says it’s important not to give up on the images you want even if you fail a few (or many) times. “Really attack an image and go after it until you get it,” says Stone. “Go out every day to the place you want to get the image and really focus yourself on your task.” Eventually, with enough stubbornness, Stone says, you’re likely to get the image you’re after.


Southern Pacific humpback whale mother and calf in Vava'u, the Kingdom of Tonga. Image credit: Jodi Frediani

Some of the best photographs of wild creatures capture very regular parts of their lives, such as feeding and sleeping. Frediani says she especially enjoys watching humpback whales lunge upward through the water’s surface to get a mouthful of krill, plankton, and small fish. While whale feeding is an everyday behavior, Frediani says she gets excited every time she gets on a boat to watch “these leviathans ‘making a living.’”


When it comes to crafting the right shot, framing is very important, says Safina. When you look through your viewfinder, think of its confines as a picture frame. You can always crop a photo, but often the best shots are framed correctly even before they’re taken. “Everything else you are aware of about your surroundings and the circumstances, the viewer will never see,” Safina says. So pay special attention to getting what you need in the frame and excluding the things that may distract your viewer.


Perhaps the most important secret to keep in mind is to respect the animals you’re photographing, Slattery says. Each type of animal has its own comfort level around humans. “Think about the ethics of each situation you’re in,” says Slattery. “If you could be harmed by getting close to an animal, or the animal could get stressed, stay far away and use a long magnifying lens.” It should go without saying, but no picture is worth harming an animal—or getting injured yourself.

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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
These Strange Sea Spiders Breathe Through Their Legs
Original image
Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

We know that humans breathe through their lungs and fish breathe through their gills—but where exactly does that leave sea spiders?

Though they might appear to share much in common with land spiders, sea spiders are not actually arachnids. And, by extension, they don't circulate blood and oxygen the way you'd expect them to, either.

A new study from Current Biology found that these leggy sea dwellers (marine arthropods of the class Pycnogonida) use their external skeleton to take in oxygen. Or, more specifically: They use their legs. The sea spider contracts its legs—which contain its guts—to pump oxygen through its body.

Somehow, these sea spiders hardly take the cake for Strangest Spider Alive (especially because they're not actually spiders); check out, for instance, our round-up of the 10 strangest spiders, and watch the video from National Geographic below:

Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."


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