Wednesday, 25 September 2013


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Battle-Ready: 5 Insects Prepared for War
By Danielle Elliot,
National Geographic, 23 September 2013.

From the ironclad beetle to a fly with spy vision, see five insects that nature has prepared for battle.

1. Planthopper (Issus coleoptratus)

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A microscopic image shows the Issus planthopper’s “gears” engaging.

Last week we learned about an insect that can leap up to three feet (almost a meter) in a single bound. The planthopper (Issus coleoptratus), a common garden bug found all over the world, is able to take these giant leaps because its legs are powered by an interlocking gear system.

It’s the first known natural gear system - even though its been hiding in plain sight all along.

And to think, all these years we believed gears were something people dreamed up. Take a closer look at a few other common insects and we start to realize that in many cases, nature innovated first - particularly when it comes to matters of defense and survival.

2. Weapons: Termite

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Longipeditermes longipes, a Nasutitermitinae termite species. Image source: Termite Web.

A word of advice: don’t mess with the Nasutitermitinae termite. Termites are pesky enough, but the more than 650 species of the genus Nasutitermes take it a step further: Their faces are equipped with a gun-like snout that shoots a lethal glue. Called a fontanellar gun, it can shoot the deadly stuff up to several centimetres. The chemical make-up of the substance varies between species, but it is always gluey, according to a 1979 study in the journal Biochemical Systematics and Ecology.

This ammo wards off would-be attackers, like ants, from a distance, because it stops them in their tracks. Even when enemies escape the sticky situation, they cannot survive the chemicals in the ammo, researchers explained in 1974.

Once one soldier in a colony fires, a pheromone in the substance alerts other soldiers that danger is imminent and triggers them to shoot. Their accuracy is impressive, especially considering they are blind.

3. Armour: Ironclad Beetle

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The ironclad beetle is aptly named.

Army generals might consider outfitting soldiers with uniforms made from the shells of the ironclad beetle (Zopherus).

Native to the southwestern U.S. and South America, they are protected by an incredibly hard exoskeleton that makes them tough to kill, according to researchers at Texas A&M University. Even when they’re dead, entomologists and bug collectors often have to use a drill to puncture their shells.

You might be tricked into thinking you’ve killed one, however, because these bugs play dead when they are disturbed.

4. Spy Vision: Fly

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The eyes of a fly, via

It’s hard enough to sneak up on a housefly, considering it has 360-degree vision. Even if you find a way, it can be harder still to swat quickly enough to overcome the fly’s remarkable ability to sense and escape danger.

Flies (Diptera) have photoreceptors, a special cell in the retina that physically contracts in response to light. When danger approaches, the light changes, often casting a shadow over the fly.

According to a 2012 study published in the journal Science, the force of the photoreceptor contraction produces electrical responses that travel to their brain incredibly fast - much faster than the chemical responses that the human body relies on to sense danger. The entire process happens in about a hundred milliseconds. That’s three times faster than we can blink.

5. Coded Communication: Firefly

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A glass jar of fireflies.

The Morse code was crucial during World War II. But long before U.S. generals used the combination of short and long taps or flashes of light to communicate, nature had its own version. If you’ve ever spent a summer evening chasing fireflies (Lampyridae), you’ve seen this natural Morse code in action.

Created through bioluminescence, the little flashes of light are the fireflies’ way of communicating with one another, reports Scientific American. They emit light from a tiny organ, aptly called a “lantern,” that is on the underside of their belly.

The length and pattern of the flashes allow them to identify each other, because each species has a unique pattern, and those patterns differ between the genders. In some species, female fireflies also pay attention to the males’ patterns when it comes time to choose a mate.

Top image: A young Issus planthopper. Image courtesy Malcolm Burrows.

[Source: National Geographic. Edited. Some images added.]

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