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

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Wasp-mimicking katydids

Imagine yourself in a tropical jungle. You see a medium sized insect, about 3.5 cm long, land on a light trap. Its body is elongated, metallic black with a bluish hue, bright orange wings and long orange and black antennae. It walks around moving its antennae really fast. What could it be?

– “Dan, It’s a tarantula hawk, a wasp in the family Pompilidae, duh!

Not so fast! In the insect world, things aren’t always what they seem, and this is a fine example:

Aganacris

This jaw-dropping katydid (Tettigoniidae; Phaneropterinae) belongs to the genus Aganacris, and it mimics a pompilid wasp (Pepsis are relatively common here and have very similar colors) with remarkable accuracy. Aposematic wasp mimics are common in the insect world; you can see many examples in flies (Syrphidae), moths (Sesiidae) and beetles (Cerambycidae), but seeing it in a katydid was a first. As it turns out, wasp mimicry in tettigonids is pretty rare; Nickle and Castner studied the strategies against diurnal predators used by this group in Perú, and most of the groups were leaf/bark/twig/lichen mimics; only two genera, Aganacris and Scaphura, were found to be wasp mimics. [1]

This is another first for me (I mentioned pentatomids making insect smoothies earlier), and I couldn’t be happier. Even though I’ve been to this particular biological station quite a few times, every time I go there I see something new and simply astonishing.

1.- David A. Nickle and James L. Castner, 1995. Strategies Utilized by Katydids (Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae) against Diurnal Predators in Rainforests of Northeastern Peru. Journal of Orthoptera Research, No. 4, pp. 75-88. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3503461