Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Deputy Head of Research here at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, tells us how he first became interested in natural history. Hear about his work as a palaeoentomologist specialising in the study of insects fossilised in amber, including the discovery of a fascinating lacewing species from around 100 million years ago with an ingenious method of camouflage and defence.
Ricardo’s research into the fossilised lacewing species, Hallucinochrysa diogenesi, has shown that the strategy of covering the body with materials from the environment as a way to camouflage and defend, known as trash-carrying, evolved at least 100 million years ago. Several species of invertebrates use this strategy today, including green lacewing larvae, and some sea urchin and crab species. Can you think of other ways in which insects defend themselves from their prey? Let us know in the comments below or in the Contact Us section of the blog.
Being near the bottom of the food chain isn’t ideal. Insects have many different predators including lots from the insect world itself and that’s before you’ve even started to take account of all the birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals that consider insects an important part of their diet. So how do insects dodge death and defend themselves against predators? Read on to find out about some cunning techniques and surprising solutions!
Did you know that some species of ladybird have clever, and some rather disgusting, ways of deterring predators? Not only do many species display the bright warning colours of red or yellow combined with black, but some can exude a stinky yellow liquid through their knees when in danger. This is called reflex bleeding because the liquid is made from their blood. You may have noticed it if you have picked up a ladybird and seen yellow spots of liquid on your hand.
Other insects can squirt noxious fluids into the air when they feel threatened. Wood Ants, for example, spray formic acid. The incredible Bombardier Beetle (seen here on the right) can combine two different liquids stored in separate chambers in its abdomen to produce a boiling hot chemical that literally explodes from the beetle’s rear. I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of that!
Cloaks of Invisibility
For many insects, protection from predators is all about not being seen. There are some amazing masters of disguise whose camouflage is so good we have trouble spotting them. For example, many moths are almost invisible when resting in their preferred habitat such as on the bark of trees.
How many insects can you spot?
Another form of camouflage is to disguise yourself as an object of no importance, such as a twig. When threatened, this beetle (Platyrhinous resinosis) rolls over, draws in its legs, lies very still and looks just like a bird poo!
Masters of Disguise
If you can’t blend in with your background, you could always be a master of mimicry and pretend to be something really scary! This Hornet Clearwing is not actually a hornet with a powerful sting. It’s a moth, but by mimicking the colours and form of the hornet it will manage to put off many a hungry bird!
Some insects have formidable weapons that may serve to fend off rivals, help catch prey and deter predators. Look at the ferocious jaws of the Stag Beetle or the sharp pincers, or forceps, at the rear end of the earwig. They might make you think twice before tackling these guys! In fact, the jaws of the Stag Beetle are all show! They are actually quite weak and may even prevent Stag Beetles from feeding in their adult form. The fact that they exist at all just shows how effective they are at warding off predators.
Let us know if you have a favourite story about how insects dodge death and survive in a world full of predators.