Wildlife

Battle-Ready: 5 Insects Prepared for War

Last week we learned about an insect that can leap up to three feet (almost a meter) in a single bound. The planthopper (Issus coleoptratus), a common garden bug found all over the world, is able to take these giant leaps because its legs are powered by an interlocking gear system.

insect gears picture
A microscopic image shows the Issus planthopper’s “gears” engaging. Image courtesy Malcolm Burrows

It’s the first known natural gear system—even though its been hiding in plain sight all along.

And to think, all these years we believed gears were something people dreamed up. Take a closer look at a few other common insects and we start to realize that in many cases, nature innovated first—particularly when it comes to matters of defense and survival.

planthopper picture
A young Issus planthopper.Image courtesy Malcolm Burrows.

Weapons: Termite

A word of advice: don’t mess with the Nasutitermitinae termite. Termites are pesky enough, but the more than 650 species of the genus Nasutitermes take it a step further: Their faces are equipped with a gun-like snout that shoots a lethal glue. Called a fontanellar gun, it can shoot the deadly stuff up to several centimeters. The chemical make-up of the substance varies between species, but it is always gluey, according to a 1979 study in the journal Biochemical Systematics and Ecology.

This ammo wards off would-be attackers, like ants, from a distance, because it stops them in their tracks. Even when enemies escape the sticky situation, they cannot survive the chemicals in the ammo, researchers explained in 1974.

Once one soldier in a colony fires, a pheromone in the substance alerts other soldiers that danger is imminent and triggers them to shoot. Their accuracy is impressive, especially considering they are blind.

Armor: Ironclad Beetle

Army generals might consider outfitting soldiers with uniforms made from the shells of the ironclad beetle (Zopherus).

The ironclad beetle is aptly named. Photograph from Nature’s Images/Science Source

Native to the southwestern U.S. and South America, they are protected by an incredibly hard exoskeleton that makes them tough to kill, according to researchers at Texas A&M University. Even when they’re dead, entomologists and bug collectors often have to use a drill to puncture their shells.

You might be tricked into thinking you’ve killed one, however, because these bugs play dead when they are disturbed.

Spy Vision: Fly

It’s hard enough to sneak up on a housefly, considering it has 360-degree vision. Even if you find a way, it can be harder still to swat quickly enough to overcome the fly’s remarkable ability to sense and escape danger.

Flies (Diptera) have photoreceptors, a special cell in the retina that physically contracts in response to light. When danger approaches, the light changes, often casting a shadow over the fly.

According to a 2012 study published in the journal Science, the force of the photoreceptor contraction produces electrical responses that travel to their brain incredibly fast—much faster than the chemical responses that the human body relies on to sense danger. The entire process happens in about a hundred milliseconds. That’s three times faster than we can blink.

Coded Communication: Firefly

The Morse code was crucial during World War II. But long before U.S. generals used the combination of short and long taps or flashes of light to communicate, nature had its own version. If you’ve ever spent a summer evening chasing fireflies (Lampyridae), you’ve seen this natural Morse code in action.

firefly pictures
A glass jar of fireflies. Photograph by Steve Irvine, National Geographic Your Shot

Created through bioluminescence, the little flashes of light are the fireflies’ way of communicating with one another, reports Scientific American. They emit light from a tiny organ, aptly called a “lantern,” that is on the underside of their belly.

The length and pattern of the flashes allow them to identify each other, because each species has a unique pattern, and those patterns differ between the genders. In some species, female fireflies also pay attention to the males’ patterns when it comes time to choose a mate.

Follow Danielle Elliot on Twitter.

Tell us: What other cool bugs have you come across?

Danielle Elliot is a multimedia producer and writer who earned her chops reporting and producing for networks, start-ups, and everything in between. A graduate of the University of Maryland, she covered tennis and Olympic figure skating for a few years before earning an M.A. in Science and Health Journalism at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @daniellelliot.

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