Mimicry. Oh, the mimicry.

Mimicry is amazing, and a topic that I find incredibly satisfying to witness first-hand in the field. I’ve been lucky enough to see wasp-mimicking katydids before, as well as a couple of ant mimics, but these past few months I’ve seen several other examples that have left me awestruck (some which were on my bucket list!). Let’s see what we’ve found:

Acanthops tuberculata, a boxing mantis that mimics dead leaves

Acanthops tuberculata, a boxing mantis that mimics dead leaves

I was the sole student of one of my courses (Special Topics on Animal Behavior), so the classes were basically a conversation between me and my professor. While in the middle of reviewing the pros and cons of a particular study, my prof looks out the door and says “That leaf has legs! That’s a mantis!” Sure enough, we went over and saw it, a stunning Acanthops tuberculata (ID according to Lombardo & Ippolito, 2004).  These stunning mantids are dead leaf mimics, and it sure looked like one. When seen up close, it was like looking at a (very cool) alien.

Alien mugshot

Alien mugshot

These mantids even hang upside down and sway to and fro randomly, as if saying “I am a leaf on the wind”*, which I find incredibly interesting since it’s both physical and behavioral mimicry.

Now we move on to wasp mimicry, a very common occurrence in the insect world. This year I saw two great examples:

Ichneumon mimic (top) and Polistinae model (bottom)

Ichneumon mimic (top) and Polistinae model (bottom)

This is a pic from one of my sweep samples. The wasp at the top is an ichneumon wasp, a parasitoid of insect larvae; the wasp at the bottom is a polistine wasp, a very common predatory wasp. The resemblance is uncanny, and I’d love to be able to study this particular case of mimicry in greater detail.

But a wasp imitating another wasp seems relatively easy (they are close relatives, after all). But what about an insect in a different order? We saw it with the katydids, and this time I saw it with another, less common group: Mantisflies! Some of these amazing little neuropterans have been reported to be wasp mimics (Opler 1981), but I didn’t think they’d be this good.

This is a Synoeca wasp, with its metallic black color and blueish hues on its wings.

A Synoeca wasp

A Synoeca wasp

And this is Climaciella obtusa, a mimic of Synoeca wasps.

Identity crisis: Not a mantis, not a fly, not a wasp.

Identity crisis: Not a mantis, not a fly, not a wasp.

The level of detail in this example of mimicry is astonishing, and I only recognized it as something that was not a wasp because of the way it walked. A stunning find, and a very happy entomologist as a result.

I will be starting sampling at a new site soon, and I hope to find more examples of mimicry, both morphological and behavioral!

*You win 25 internet points if you understood this Firefly/Serenity reference. Shiny!

References:

Lombardo, F & Ippolito, S. 2004. Revision of the Species of Acanthops Serville 1831 (Mantodea, Mantidae, Acanthopinae) with Comments on Their Phylogeny. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 97(6):1076-1102.

Opler, P.A. 1981. Polymorphic Mimicry of Polistine Wasps by a Neotropical Neuropteran. Biotropica, 13, 165−176. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2388121

My bucket list got shorter

Venezuela is a beautiful country, with everything from deserts to rainforests, snowy mountains to seasonally flooded savannas. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to many of the different environments along the northern coast, from the arid Paraguaná peninsula, where I saw the world’s largest grasshoppers, to the incredibly biodiverse Paria peninsula, where I swam at night in a bioluminescent beach and released sea turtle hatchlings. However, I hadn’t visited the central part of the country, the Llanos, a vast, flat savanna teeming with wildlife. This changed this past weekend when I was asked to accompany the Ecology I course to Hato Masaguaral, so I could show undergrad students insect collecting techniques and show them how field work was done and just how different it was from lab work (many of them were interested in cell/mol bio, and due to a series of unfortunate events this was their first ever field trip).

A few hours after leaving the temperate climate of the mountains around Caracas we arrived at Los Llanos biological Station, where we made a brief stop. A few minutes after walking around the station and seeing an american kestrel nesting inside a termite mound, the course’s TA called me over so I could take a pic. She was pointing up at a tree stump with a smile on her face, saying “Look, it’s so cool!”. I looked up and there it was, a common potoo!

Tree stumps with feathers are common

Tree stumps with feathers are common

After a short drive, we arrived at Hato Masaguaral, we got settled in the houses for researchers. They were teeming with tree frogs and other critters, like this gravid female mantis that was on our doorstep

Stagmatoptera sp.

Stagmatoptera sp.

After dinner we were getting ready to go to the field very early the next day, but as I was taking a shower I heard one of the students, out of breath, tell the teacher that there was a snake in the bathroom. I quickly dried off, got my camera and saw it, a little colubrid that feeds mainly on small frogs. It was in the bathroom’s water tank, so we carefully took it outside for a quick picture before it slithered off.

Leptodeira annulata

Leptodeira annulata

We were up quite early the next morning, setting up the mist nets to capture and measure birds. It was a great sight, seeing everyone chirping with excitement (although many were half asleep) under a starry sky. It was a perfect photo opportunity.

Field work starts early and covered by stars

Field work starts early and covered by stars

After setting up the mist nets, we walked for a few minutes while the sun rose. In the meantime, one of the TAs (an expert in tracking mammals) showed the students how to recognize paw prints in the mud.

A typical sunrise in los llanos

A typical sunrise in los llanos

Around 8 am we headed back to the mist nets to see if we had collected anything. Sure enough, there were two troupials (our national bird) and two lineated woodpeckers. Our troupials are colorful birds, and they have quite a temper!

Icterus icterus

Icterus icterus

After that, the actual field work began. Under the scorching sun we walked towards the field site where the students would collect soil samples. I was ecstatic; amazing birds left and right, meter long snakes, crocodiles and lizards. Despite it being extremely hot and dry, there was plenty of wildlife. A few minutes later, I heard hoarse hissing sounds, as if something was exhaling loudly, and I was overcome with excitement, for I had been waiting ten years for this. They were hoatzins, shaggy, prehistoric-looking birds that are basically punk dinosaurs. They have long feathers that project upwards and backwards, like crests (which gives them their generic name, Opisthocomus).

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Opisthocomus hoazin

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We continued our walk torwards the field site, which to the students seemed like ten Km due to the scorching heat (we’re talking 42-44 C, with barely any wind and no clouds). Savanna hawks flew above us, while smaller birds rushed for cover when they heard us approaching.

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Buteogallus meridionalis

After a grueling mid-day field work session (and a slight scare, due to a student almost passing out from the heat), we headed back to camp. As we scouted for a place to set up the camera trap, one of the students squealed with delight as she pointed towards the trees. It was a small group of capuchin monkeys (Cebus olivaceus)! The alpha male wasn’t too thrilled to see me close by with my camera, and he rattled the branches as he grunted and screamed at me.

This is not a happy face

This is not a happy face

When we finally got back to camp, we were treated to a tour of the crocodile nursery. There they breed the critically endangered Orinoco crocodiles and release them in specific areas once they reach a certain length.

Chillin' in the nursery

Crocodylus intermedius

The following day I had only one other item to cross off my bucket list: See a burrowing owl. So a fellow colleague and ornithologist asked me to go with her first to a nearby pond to check out the aquatic birds, and after that we would look for burrowing owls. We saw plenty of birds on our way:

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Aplomado falcon, Falco femoralis

I hadn’t seen a large group of aquatic birds before, and seeing all of them fly at once is something amazing. It’s a living cloud, basically. We quickly counted the two species of whistling ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis and D. viduata) and the black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) before heading over to the dunes to look for the burrowing owls.

Los Llanos went a little overboard with the Clone tool

Los Llanos went a little overboard with the Clone tool

Then, to finish an amazing trip, I saw them. After almost two decades of only seeing them in calendars and books, I saw them in real life. These little owls have a perpetual stare, and they make their nests underground.

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Athene cunicularia

All in all, despite the excessive heat and extremely dry environment, it was a fantastic trip, and I can’t wait to go again. I crossed several items off my bucket list: hoatzins, burrowing owls, deer, crocs, several eagles/haws/kestrels/falcons, and the Llanos themselves. Next time I will collect insects so I can leave an insect box at the camp’s museum. More pics will come in the future!