Jan 152010
photo provided courtesy of Hamed Saber on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeworldwide
Habitattropical and temperate forests, grassland, suburban
Nichemost are herbivorous, some species feed on other insects
Favorite Foodplant juices
Lengthup to 1 inch
Notable Featurethey produce a foul-smelling liquid to ward off predators

There are over 5,000 species of stink bugs worldwide, and they range in color from drab green and brown to brightly-colored red and yellow. Most species suck juices from trees and shrubs, but a few prey on other insects. As a result of their feeding habits on commercially-valuable crops, some species are serious pests to humans.

Stink bugs are also known as shield-bugs because of the shape of their bodies. They have broad “shoulders” that taper into their abdomens below their folded wings. They have strong angular legs for gripping plant stems and have specialized mouthparts for piercing and slurping. They are very common insects and can be found nearly everywhere in the world where there’s vegetation.

Stink bugs are so-named because of their defense against predators. If they’re disturbed, they will eject a noxious liquid from special glands in their thorax. The smell and taste of this bitter chemical weapon is enough to deter many predators and to put off a casual human collector. The bright coloration of many species is a warning sign to predators that it doesn’t taste very good. Sometimes coloration alone in the animal kingdom does the trick without needing to deploy the weapon being advertised.

The Atlas Moth

 Asia, Invertebrates, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Atlas Moth
Jan 032010
photo provided courtesy of internets diary on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSoutheast Asia
Habitattropical forests and grasslands
Nichelarge flying insect
Favorite Foodplant leaves in larval form
Wingspanup to 10 inches
StatusVulnerable to extinction
Threatshabitat destruction, specimen collection

In the forests of southern of Southern Asia there lives an insect so large that it defies belief. Brilliantly colored with wings big enough to cover your laptop screen, the atlas moth is truly a sight to behold against the lush green backdrop of its tropical habitat.

Atlas moths belong to the largest family of moths, called saturniid moths or emperor moths. About 800 species make up this family, and among them are the biggest moths on planet earth. The atlas moth is near the top of the list, with adult female wingspans measuring as much as 10 inches across, attached to a body the size of a human thumb. Females are larger than males, but lack the broad, feathery antennae.

photo provided courtesy of internets diary on Flickr Creative CommonsLike all butterflies and moths, atlas moths begin their life cycle as larvae called caterpillars hatched from eggs. These caterpillars voraciously consume as much plant material as possible in preparation for their next stage of life. Gobbling a variety of plant leaves, they must store a certain amount of energy before they spin hairy cocoons about their bodies. Within the cocoon, they are protected from many predators and begin the process that turns them into the adult, winged moth form. Surprisingly, adult atlas moths do not eat. They must consume enough food in caterpillar form to both molt into their adult form and sustain the flight of a giant adult insect. Adult lives are spent searching for mates and avoiding predators, working on a tight timeline. Since they can’t eat, they need to accomplish their life goals without the ability to buy more time before death.

Despite their size, atlas moths do not possess much in the way of a defensive arsenal. However, like other moths, they can use their bright, spotted coloration to confuse predators. If an atlas moth is disturbed, it will thrust its wings forward, flashing its bright spots. Often, the sight of what appears to be a much larger, different animal is enough to startle a predator long enough to allow the moth to fly away.

Atlas moths are protected in some regions of Asia due to threats posed by habitat destruction and collection. Since they are so huge and spectacularly colored, they are a favorite specimen to mount on display. Like many other animals living in the tropical rainforests of Asia, the atlas moth will only survive if we’re committed to letting it do so.

The Bullet Ant

 Invertebrates, South America, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Bullet Ant
Nov 072009
photo provided courtesy of Emills1 on Flickr Creative CommonsHome Amazon River Basin
Habitattropical forest, at the base of trees
Nichepredatory insect
Favorite Foodother insects
Lengthone inch
Notable Featuretheir stings are described as the most painful on earth

Imagine pain 30 times worse than a bee sting. It is a pain described as walking across a bed of hot coals with a rusted nail inches deep in your sole. It’s fearsome, intense, blackout-inducing pain that can nag a victim for a day or longer as the venom courses through muscles. In fact, this particular insect’s sting is so powerful that it has been compared to being shot with a bullet.

The South American bullet ants are among the largest ants in the world, reaching nearly an inch in length. They inhabit tropical rainforests of Central and South America, ranging from Nicaragua down into the Amazon River Basin, where they like to roam about the trunks of trees in search of food. And as their name implies, they have a fearsome reputation.

Unlike their more social ant cousins, bullet ants are loners in the forests they inhabit, even though they live together in a nest. They are hostile to other bullet ants that they don’t recognize from their nest and will fight to the death. On the other hand, contact with members of the same nest will cause a temporary suspension of the loner lifestyle. If they happen to run into a familiar ant, they will communicate and sometimes pass food back and forth, but that is the extent of their social behavior. For the most part, bullet ants are looking out for number one. Instead of leaving a scent trail to tell other ants about a source of food, these solitary insects will exploit the meal themselves. In addition to feeding on insects, they also have a fondness for nectar and are often seen carrying a droplet of the sweet liquid in their mandibles.

Bullet ants are known and feared for their terrifying stings. Their sting is primarily for defense since most of the insects that the bullet ant eats are already dead. It’s classified as the most painful sting of any insect, beating out even that of the intimidating tarantula hawk wasp. The secret to the pain is in the cocktail of neurotoxins contained in the ant’s venom. The stinger pierces skin and a bulb at its base injects the venom into the wound, causing the cycle of pain as the toxins enter the bloodstream.

Though it seems insane to actively seek the stings of bullet ants, some South American tribes actually use the stings as tests of manhood. The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil are one such tribe. In preparation for the ceremony, bullet ants are collected from the forest and subdued, then woven into large mitts made of leaves. The young men undergoing the right of passage must then place these mitts on their hands and allow the ants to awaken from their stupor. As the enraged ants feverishly try to escape, they sting the hands mercilessly. The custom varies from tribe to tribe, but often boys who are seeking manhood must endure this ordeal without screaming – a tall order for someone under the sensation of being burned alive. And some tribes require that a man pass through this rite not once, but up to 20 times.