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

An entomologist’s (and a photographer’s) bucket list

As a kid, I grew up reading about fantastic animals, creatures that were more incredible than anything my imagination could assemble: bats with leaf-like noses, hoatzins, axolotls, elephants, platypus, dinosaurs and countless arthropods and sea dwellers. As I grew up, I had the oportunity to learn more about these and other creatures, and in some cases, meet them up close.

While studying Zoology in college, I started a “bucket list”: animals, places or events I had to see (and photograph, if  possible) before I turned 30. In the past decade, I’ve crossed many off my list: I went to Angel Falls, fed an elephant, held a male Long-Tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus kingi) and saw a tail-less whip scorpion in its natural habitat, among others.

During a field trip last weekend I saw one of the creatures I had longed to see for almost a decade: a scorpionfly. Yes, for many entomologists this isn’t a big deal, but they’re not that common down here. I was alone at the light trap at the time, since the two other researchers were ornithologists and had fallen asleep by 9:30 pm. I was doing a routine check when I looked down and there it was, stumbling on the floor; at first I thought it was a big crane fly, but when I looked closer I saw two pairs of wings and a face akin to the Egyptian god Set, and I knew that I was finally able to strike it off my list. It was a hangingfly (family Bittacidae) rather than a true scorpionfly (family Panorpidae), but still a fantastic find for me.

One of the worst things about finding it, though, was the inability to share my excitement with anyone; my friends at the station were asleep, no internet service and my friends back home would replace every song on my computer with the sound of a thousand vuvuzelas if I sent them an SMS at 2:30 am. I had to wait to return to civilization to share my excitement with fellow arthropod enthusiasts, since the ornithologists just said it resembled a mosquito on steroids.

Managing to finally strike that off my list has made me review it. Here are a few of the items:

– See a monarch butterfly migration completely covering a tree
– Swim with great whites (no playing heroes here, I’m perfectly happy to see them from inside a cage)
– Visit and photograph every one of my country’s national parks
– See a salamander
– Photograph a tiger beetle

Some are easier than others, but I hope to be able to cross them all off in the next couple of years.

Which items are on your list, and which have you managed to see/do?