ECO Art + Science: Photography of Plant Ecologist Kurt Reinhart

This week’s featured artist-scientist in the ECO Art + Science series is Kurt Reinhart: plant ecologist for the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Miles City, Montana, photographer and videographer. Kurt is also the creator of the website, an educational resource for plant ecology on the web. For those of you who are regular readers, you know how much I love time-lapse projects, so I was particularly excited to interview someone who loves time-lapse even more than I do (and who does a great job, too)!

Forests from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] Thanks for participating in the ECO Art + Science series, Kurt! Why don’t you start by telling the biocreativity readers what type of work do you do.

[KR] I’m an incredibly lucky guy that gets paid to do what I enjoy—being a Plant Ecologist.  At work, I spend most of my time either conceiving, implementing, analyzing, or publishing research projects.  The work is filled with challenges, and I also enjoy the multiple ways that I get to be creative while doing my job.  I have other passions in my life including: my family, hiking, camping, hunting, and nature photography.  In many cases, these passions are intertwined.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Is your primary training in art or science, or both?

[KR] I may be interpreting the term “biocreativity” differently but I aspire to being biocreative.  I see it directly related to making scientific breakthroughs, developing multidisciplinary projects, and elevating the importance of my science.  Creativity is an essential ingredient in scientific achievement.

Though I hated it in high school, my primary training is actually in biology. I’ve also been interested in nature photography for years.  For about five years, I’ve been attempting to merge my professional and recreational interests with the creation of some short educational movies and other types of content on my website

This panorama shows a series of plant communities in different stages of secondary succession occurring at Shades State Park, Indiana. Secondary succession involves recovering following a disturbance. In this case agricultural conversion and then abandonment restarts the successional clock. This specific type of succession is often referred to as "old field succession" following abandonment. The field to the left is the youngest. The slightly older field to the right has an abundance of goldenrod (Solidago sp.). This is a common species in old fields of the eastern United States. To the rear of this field (right side) is an early successional forest. The forest to the left is the oldest plant community in view. As succession progresses there are numerous changes in the plant community composition and structure. Photo & caption text by Kurt Reinhart.

[biocreativity] I really enjoy the iecology site. It’s a great way to visualize ecology – especially plant biology! It’s also great that you’ve been able to use your creative abilities to help educate others about ecology. How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? 

[KR] Whether art should be merged more formally with science is functionally a decision for faculty at Universities to decide.  This decision really depends on their composition, history and vision, which will dictate whether such a change is pursued or not.  What is obvious to me is that many scientists are also musicians, painters, photographers, etc.  Scientists are a diverse bunch—some are likely indifferent to art but others are deeply connected and inspired by it.  To me, science has many connections with art.

Art is a tangible product that expresses an artist’s ideas and vision.  It serves as a form of communication that when done well provokes interpretation and reflection.  Scientists are concerned with interpreting and generating ideas, building an awareness for what is known and unknown, collecting and interpreting data, and skillfully communicating the importance of their ideas and interpretations.  A lot of aspects of science and art are shared though the training, tools, and media often differ.  I recently had a lot of fun collaborating on a time-lapse project with painter Mika Holtzinger.

Looking Back from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] What got you interested in plant biology? Also, what are some of the challenges of working with organisms and communities that are often very slow (at least, they are slow from the perspective of most humans) to change? 

[KR] I became really interested in plants after realizing their importance in defining habitat for wildlife and ecosystem structure and function.  Their importance is greater than most realize.  Most people think plants are as boring as rocks…  Their interest in nature is often limited to topics that can be easily visualized like courtship, predation, migration, and other animal behaviors.  I love nature documentaries, but they typically illustrate a small fraction of nature.  Getting audiences excited about the rest of nature is a challenge.

At work, we provide annual school tours.  99.9% of forth graders will never forget the day they got to reach into a cannulated cow’s “stomach” (actually rumen).  A major challenge is making plants equally exciting.  Over the years, I’ve tried to take professional photographs of plants and plant communities (landscapes) to help make them appealing subjects to a broad audience.  I’ve been dabbling in videography and have been shooting time-lapse sequences of plants for nearly 10 years.  Time-lapse videos are my favorite medium for making plants charismatic!

Time-lapse video of American chestnut seedlings growing from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] What inspired you to get started in photography and what inspires your current work?

[KR] For years, I’ve been a huge fan of the outdoors and nature, macro, wildlife, and landscape photography.  I read books and magazines on nature and landscape photography.  For several years, I’ve been a big fan of the  forum!  Probably my biggest source of inspiration for my website is Roger Handgarter’s website (  I was fortunate to interact with Roger and documentary film maker Sam Orr while post-docing at Indiana University.  I’m also a huge fan of the incredible time-lapse content produced by BBC, especially Tim Shepherd‘s time-lapses.

[biocreativity] I am a huge fan of the BBC time-lapse crew, which I featured in a post about nature time-lapse back in July. Time-lapse just seems to be a really engaging and effective way to get others involved in biology. What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[KR]  I see patterns and processes in nature with biological meaning that many people don’t.  This view of nature has been honed by years of training and experience.  Publishing research is an essential part of my career but this content often impacts only a small fraction of the world and mostly other scientists.  Photography and videography is one way that I attempt to communicate ecological concepts to a broader world.

The above panorama near the peak of Mount Sentinel near Missoula, Montana experienced a wildfire killing the trees in the foreground. The north aspects of the mountains retain slightly more moisture (i.e. snow melts slower) permiting trees to persist (see upper left of picture with a north-west aspect). Photo and caption text by Kurt Reinhart.

[biocreativity] Your ability to communicate ecology to others is really well illustrated by your Mount Sentinel panorama (above). I assume this often sparks interesting conversations with others about your work and about ecology. What are the most common questions or comments you get about your work?

[KR] A lot of people enjoy watching time-lapse content.  Shooting time-lapse sequences is considerably more challenging than photographing the same subject.  Most questions that I receive pertain to technical details of shooting a sequence.  I only have a few trade secrets and enjoy sharing most of what I’ve learned.  On my website, I provide various details on individual sequences.  I like hearing from people, and their positive feedback helps keep me motivated!

I do lots of different types of research.  So the questions are as varied as the topics and people asking the questions.

Damping-off – a story of plant disease from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] I really enjoy how you are able to present scientific information along with captivating images. Your short film on damping off disease in plants is a particularly good example of this. I also really enjoy your series of interactive panoramic photos on the iecology site that present information on plant community ecology. The diversity of habitats you’ve covered is impressive! Kurt, what’s next for you?

[KR] I’m enjoying being a full time ecologist in a region with some of the largest, most intact, and least studied grasslands in the world.  I wouldn’t want to be doing research anywhere else.

I’m gradually accumulating all sorts of time-lapse content that I hope to eventually develop into a 10-30 minute movie that I would like to enter in a regional film contest! That is a distant goal.  I’ve also got a new time-lapse set, like a mini studio, nearly complete that should enable me to make some incredible time-lapses of plants.  I love my website but a lot of content on the internet is tough to sustain due to the persistent costs of maintaining a website.  Either way, I’ll still be working away at shooting and making content.

Time-lapse blue grama grass anthesis from Kurt Reinhart on Vimeo.

[biocreativity] Well, I can’t wait to see what comes next! Speaking of science and film – you and the biocreativity readers may be interested in Scientific American’s PsiVid blog. They discuss all kinds of opportunities and methods for making science films. I notice that your Favorites page on the iecology site features a lot of ecology, photography and filmmaking links that could be very useful to the biocreativity readers. Just to summarize, can you tell the biocreativity readers all the places on the web where they can learn more about your work?

[KR] To see my time-lapse content, check out my website ( or  my Vimeo page. The Vimeo account may be the best place to keep track of my content in the future because I’m contemplating closing my website due to annual hosting fees. If you’re interested in learning more about my science then you can jump over to I also have an iecology Twitter account, but post infrequently.

[biocreativity] Kurt, thank you so much for sharing your work with us on the biocreativity blog. I noticed you have a ‘donate’ button at the bottom of the the iecology website. I think it’s really important for there to be diverse ways for the public to learn more about the science of ecology. I hope that folks who like your website might be inspired to give what they can to support it. Now, I’m off to go and watch some more of your videos!

Panoramic photo of a bog in Adirondack State Park in NY. See the interactive panorama and learn more about bog succession at

Stay tuned for more ECO Art + Science interviews each Thursday right here at! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to

biologists and artist make fire ant art

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of creating this month’s biocreativity blog header image in Dr. Larry Gilbert’s “Fire Ant Lab” at Brackenridge Field Laboratory (or, BFL for short) – an 88-acre field station at the University of Texas at Austin. As you know from my post from last month, I’m really into time-lapse. After the July 2011 biocreativity header image and video using native plants from my backyard, I started brainstorming on what else I could use to create interesting header images and time-lapse videos for the blog. Of course, I wanted to do something with animals – but how would I keep anything still long enough to spell out b-i-o-c-r-e-a-t-i-v-i-t-y, and how could I get enough of any one kind of animal to do it? Then it hit me: FIRE ANTS!  What if you could make fire ants spell out ‘biocreativity’ and then all walk away? So, With the help of Dr. Rob Plowes from the fire ant lab, his excellent team of research assistants, my husband and his tripod and the BFL deep freeze, I set out to create the August 2011 biocreativity header image and time-lapse video using the South American red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta). Here it is if you didn’t get to see it earlier.

biocreativity | august 2011 title from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

As a former teaching assistant for a lab course in field ecology methods at BFL, I was familiar with the work of the fire ant lab, so I knew a few “tricks-of-the-trade” when it comes to ants that could make for a really interesting biocreativity project. Two natural history characteristics that make these invaders very good at what they do also worked to my advantage in this project.

First, fire ants make rafts. Literally. They link themselves together to make a raft formed from of their own bodies, which helps them disperse during floods to found new colonies. This phenomenon got quite a bit of media attention last April when researchers Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu published the findings of their research on the water repellency of fire ants and how they cooperate to make rafts in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It was covered by NPR, The Huffington Post and Scientific American among others. Their project is yet another great use of time-lapse that helped to visualize and explain how natural phenomena work, and it helped Mlot and colleagues make some very interesting discoveries about biomimicry which may have technological applications in developing new waterproof materials.

Rafting not only helps the fire ants live to colonize another day, but it’s also used to the advantage of researchers studying fire ant behavior and how to control the spread of this invasive species. In Dr. Gilbert’s lab where I met up with Rob Plowes, he showed me how they use the natural tendency of fire ants to raft as a means of easily separating hundreds of thousands of fire ants from the soil they’re collected from so they can be used to study this invasive species. In short, when they dig up fire ant mounds from the field, they place the dirt mixed with ants in 5-gallon buckets. They then bring them to the lab where they slowly drip water into the buckets overnight. This ‘rising tide’ of water in each bucket prompts the ants to dutifully gather up their brood and make for the surface where they all gather together to form a large raft.

Here is a figure from Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu's paper "Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Available from

Here is a figure from Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu's paper "Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Available from

The research in the BFL fire ant lab is focused on developing effective biocontrol agents for S. invicta, and they’re doing it using very species-specific parasitic phorid flies (Pseudacteon sp.) which interrupt foraging and other behaviors which can end up making colonies less successful in the long term. You can take a really cool virtual tour of how they conduct this research here. Thanks to these generous researchers, the problem of where I was going to get enough ants for this project was solved. They simply set aside a single tray of tens of thousands of fire ants when they were done with their research for my project.

A tray of South American Red Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta) from the Fire Ant Lab at Brackenridge Field Laboratory

A tray of South American Red Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta) from the Fire Ant Lab at Brackenridge Field Laboratory.

Now that I had enough ants, how was I going make them be still long enough to spell out the title? Well, I was introduced to a similar problem when I was the teaching assistant for Dr. Gilbert’s field ecology lab. We taught our students how to conduct ant diversity surveys by baiting for ants, usually by setting out a piece of hot dog, which any picnic-goer knows is irresistible to ants. We quickly captured the ants on the bait with a plastic baggie (reminiscent of the process of picking up after your dog) and brought them back to the lab to identify to species and count. The problem was, how do you count all the individual ants when they won’t be still? The solution lies in the fact that ants are exothermic (or “cold blooded”), meaning they get their body heat from the external environment and are less active at cooler temperatures. So, we simply put the bags of ants in the freezer to immobilize them. Once frozen for 10-30 minutes, students had a limited time window to count the ants until they warmed up enough to start moving again. It’s amazing how long it takes for this to kill the ants – usually well over 12 hours of deep-freezing! For my project, I simply put the tray of ants from the fire ant lab in the freezer while we set up the video equipment.

A tray of fire ants is immobilized in the deep freezer.

A tray of fire ants is immobilized in the deep freezer.

To create the title image, I made a stencil to spell out ‘biocreativity’ on which I sprinkled the immobilized ants. One thing that made this a little difficult was the same thing that allows the ants to raft – their legs stick together, so instead of little individual ‘sprinkles’ I ended up with more of a flocculated mass of ants that stuck together a little bit, making the letters seem ‘fuzzy’ around the edges. Also, if you ever do a project where you pour ants through a stencil, make sure you pick a font with block letters. The angle on the “t” I used gave us a bit of trouble, but it turned out OK. Some forceps and pin tools helped clean up the edges, and after a few takes, we had a pretty good image and — if I do say so myself — a pretty darn cool time-lapse.

Here’s the making-of video that shows how we did this, along with some outtakes that show some of the difficulties we had getting the ants to go through the stencil just right. Many thanks go to my husband, researchers Dr. Rob Plowes and Dr. Larry Gilbert and the hard-working crew of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory fire ant lab. Enjoy!

biocreativity | making of august 2011 blog header from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

And, yes — because I’m sure you’re wondering — I did get stung twice…in the name of biocreativity!

ants in my pants | title image august 2011

biocreativity | august 2011 title from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

Each month I’ll be creating a new header image and short film for the biocreativity blog. As you can see above, the August 2011 biocreativity blog header image and accompanying video are finally here! I had lots of fun making this one, but I want to give you a chance to guess how it was done. The ‘making of’ video will be posted in a couple of days, so get guessing!

One hint: fire ants! Many thanks to Dr. Rob Plowes and Dr. Larry Gilbert and the hard-working crew of the Fire Ant Lab at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory in Austin, TX for generously providing red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) for this project!

nature time-lapse

I really enjoyed reading about (and especially watching) Neil Bromhall‘s oak seed time-lapse featured yesterday on New Scientist’s Time-Lapse Tuesday.  How come I didn’t know about Time-Lapse Tuesday yet!? I mean, really, what kind of rock have I been living under? I have always been somewhat of a time-lapse junkie and am usually left in awe of even the most basic of time-lapse projects, which allow the often “slow” pace of nature to be visualized and appreciated by us humans.

I know I’ve got a long way to go before my work is quite as good as that, but time-lapse is very fun to try. Here is my first time-lapse title page that I made for the biocreativity blog, and I plan to have a new one each month which you can view on the biocreativity vimeo channel:

biocreativity | july 2011 title from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

Of course, technology is always evolving and allowing filmmakers to do some pretty amazing things. I mean, have you seen the incredible stuff the BBC Nature crew has been up to (covered a while back on Moving Image Source)? You can see some of their amazing footage on the BBC Nature Video Collections site. Unfortunately I can’t embed these because I’m not in the UK, but here are links to a couple of my favorites. The first is a six month panning time-lapse of a woodland, and there’s a great documentary about how this was done at the end of the Life episode in which it is featured. My other favorite is of the Antarctic marine invertebrate scavengers. The incredible thing about this one is that it can help inform us about behaviors of these animals that would be hard for us see if we just sat around McMurdo Sound freezing our butts off. Here is one I found that I could embed, about tropical plants climbing to the forest canopy to get sunlight. Amazing!

See why I put my humble little time-lapse before these? Incredible! You don’t even remember having watched mine after seeing those, now, do you? Hopefully, you can see why time-lapse is one of the most compelling media for educating others about biology. Time-lapse not only brings “slow” nature to life, but is also inherently impressive for the amount of time and energy it can take to produce a good one. You might also enjoy Wired Science’s Top 10 Time-Lapse Videos that Show Nature at Work or Mashable’s Nature in Time-Lapse: 10 Awe-Inspiring Videos. I hope you enjoy and share time-lapses that you’ve come across (leave a comment below with links to them!). Maybe you should also try making one yourself in whatever system you work on or enjoy. It’s very easy now with just a camera and either Mac or Windows movie software. A quick web search for “make time-lapse video” will result in plethora of tutorials and advice. Adventure Journal, for example, has a good article on making your own time-lapse videos. You can even use your iPhone! There’s a good tutorial on the iPhone app TimeLapse at Digital Urban. Go ahead…your video just might blow someone’s mind!