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There are all manner of field guides as well as more scholarly works to aid in the identification of insects and spiders. Most cover a wide area (such as North America) without delving too deeply into the details. It's frustrating to find the same species pictured in book after book, just because they are the most commonly encountered or the most spectacular of a group. Some states, such as Florida, have produced more publications on insects and spiders due to good university support for the study of their fauna.

Because I happen to live in Austin, Texas, and spend a lot of time photographing the tiny creatures that live here too, I have naturally wished there was a detailed guide to the insects and spiders that I find. There is no such guide, so I've collected many resources that help, from books to websites to journal articles to photographing the dried insects in the collection at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory of UT. I have consulted experts in various fields for help with identifications. Mainly, though, I've photographed and watched the tiny invertebrates in my own yard and surrounding area, comparing pictures and narrowing down identifications by the process of elimination through whatever clues I can find.

It is easy to understand why there is no comprehensive guide to insects and spiders in our area. The simple reason is numbers. It would either take a great number of very specific books on each particular group of arthropods or a huge volume on everything. There are not enough people interested in all insects and spiders, though, to make it economically feasible either way. Central Texas is located at the overlap of several large ecological areas. Creatures from the Great Plains often make it this far south, and there are many Mexican species with ranges that extend north. The southeastern fauna tends to reach here, as well as that of the arid regions to our west.

When people first become interested in learning more about the creatures that surround them, they often don't know where to start. One of the most common mistakes in identifying is to jump at the first photo in a general insect field guide that looks close and assume that is the species one has found. It's a whole lot more complicated. I often am quite satisfied to get to the Genus level because species can look so similar as to be indistinguishable except through microscopic dissection of key structures. If you think you know what you've got, then the next step is to see if there are any other possibilities. There usually are. It's all part of the fun.

My knowledge of the insects and spiders here in Austin is far from comprehensive, and I seem to find new (to me) creatures every time I go out and look. I make a lot of mistakes along the way as I try to label each species I find, but I'm constantly learning and improving my accuracy. I give slideshow talks to groups like the Austin Butterfly Forum, go on group field trips, and help friends with identifications. I've been interested in taxonomy (the science of classification) since I was a young child, and applying it to insects and spiders is a very natural direction due to the ease of using digital photography.

Almost everyone can obtain a small point and shoot digital camera nowadays. If they are ambitious, they can even learn to download the photos to a computer to view them. From the moment I switched from film to digital, I thought of my little camera as a scanner on the world. I had earlier tried to image insects with our flatbed scanner but had limited success and a mess to clean up. The camera worked much better and I've seen things that I never imagined, through the magic of magnification and pixels.

For those interested in the technical details, my earliest insect photos were taken with a Pentax K1000 35mm camera, the standard 50mm lens, and extension tubes. No flash. I always used 200 ISO print film, got 3x5 inch prints, and the images were dismally inadequate for what I wanted to see. In 2003 I finally got a digital camera: a Pentax Optio 450. That lasted for a couple of years, but I had dropped it (more than once) and scratched up the lens pretty badly, so I bought a Pentax Optio 555. I am still using that camera as I write this in Nov., 2008. I take thousands of photos, deleting most, so the camera has been not only cost effective, but a blast to use. As I get older, I cannot see the tiniest things as well anymore (big surprise) so I sometimes photograph objects I think might be bugs just to see later if they really are.


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