Wednesday, June 15, 2011

For Love of Insects

Science fiction writers in need of an alien or two have only to peruse this book for inspiration. There's the bombardier beetle, for instance, which is capable of discharging with great accuracy jets of boiling acid from its butt.

Yes, boiling.

Spraying is only one way to deliver a toxic substance. Some millipedes, for example, ooze cyanide from glandular pores. Others creatures, lacking defensive glands, are reflex bleeders – their toxic bodily fluids leak out from easily ruptured cuticle. Additional delivery methods include defensive vomiting and defecating. Yowza!

Larvae of the leaf beetle protect themselves by extruding fecal matter in long strands, which they then attach to themselves until they are completely hidden from view, creating the appearance of a tiny haystack.

Some insects practice seminal gift giving. In one species of moth, males lose 10% of their mass when mating. They transfer not just sperm to females, but also nutrients and protective alkaloids. Copulation takes upward of 9 hours.

Butterflies engage in a strange behaviour called puddling. They drink and expel prodigious amounts of water (eg 600 times their body mass) in order to acquire sodium, which is then transferred to females during mating.

Bolas spiders, which do not make webs, bring down their prey bola-style, using a thread with a drop of glue at the end.

These are only a few of the creatures you'll meet in this wonderful book, which is packed with brilliant colour photos that illustrate the bizarre goings-on of insects and arthropods.

The author, Thomas Eisner, is one of the fathers of chemical ecology. He tells us that probably far less than half of all insect species have been discovered, leaving unknown a vast reservoir of chemical compounds. "Chemical prospecting in the world of insects can still bring real rewards," he writes.

He passed away earlier this year.