It Bugs Them

Giant Wetas, Smart Moths & a
Wasp That Never Forgets a Face

A report about a giant bug found in New Zealand caused a storm this week in the world of insects and those who love them.
Feeling the bite, we added our own roundup of true tales of tiger moths fooling hungry bats and wasps with an outstanding memory.
The story that mesmerized tabloids around the world was about the wetapunga (“god of ugly things”) in Māori, an endangered cricket-like species native of New Zealand.
Known to its friends as Grand Weta, it’s a sizeable, flightless bug, but it’s neither the biggest in the world nor as rare as the stories about it led most to believe.
That characterization incensed entomologists all over, who think it’s utterly unfair to other bugs such as the Titan, the Goliath and the Elephant beetles that are the truly heavyweights of the category.
For those who don’t feel any kinship with these alien lookalikes, capable of scaring the hell out of fully grown men, such a rush to dismiss false claims about them seem a bit over the top.
But it does take a peculiar kind of devotion to dedicate your life to the study and preservation of such a crucial part of earth’s ecosystem.
The native species of the Little Barrier Island can get to a fatty 40 grams in the wild, but in captivity, a female carrying eggs has been scaled at a staggering 71 grams.
Sizewise, though, they’re no match to the Chan’s Mega-stick insect, which at 14.1 inches, can easily pass for an ideal piece of wood for a bonfire, and of course, those six-inches and up youngsters, the beetles.
The fearsome-looking Weta, though, wins in the category, well, fearsome looking, antennae down. And as part of the cricket family, they do have a famous relative, the tree cricket.
WikiPedia says that in 1897, scientist Amos Dolbear used the rate of the tree dwellers’ chirps per minute in relation with air temperature to formulate the law that bears his name.
Back to the wetapunga (why do we always think about Silvio Berlusconi when we write this word?), they’re now endangered because of rodents and other foreign species that have been introduced into the island.
Not having natural defenses against such hungry predators, they need all the help they can get from New Zealand’s flora and fauna preservation projects.

Hungry are also the bats that prey on tiger moths, a native of the Southwestern U.S. But the predators negotiate a considerably harder bargain in order to get them.
In a surprising finding, researchers detected a high frequency sound emitted by the moths, that interferes with the bats’s echo-location system.
It’s an amazing feat of evolution. The high pitch burst of sound literally hack into the bats’ radar, giving the moths time to flee.
Over time, the bats seemed to have either been incapable of finding their prey, or lost interest on them altogether.
You probably would too if you were a blind, not too graceful flying animal, with a huge menu of delicious options to satisfy your appetite.
Plus, you wouldn’t want to your radar to get messed around, since it’s crucial not just to find your way around in the dark, but also to feed yourself.
So tiger moths should make you some dough, if you happen to be betting on their survival. That is, unless some vampire star out of a cable series would decide to have something different for dinner.
Never eat anything with a face. You’ve probably heard that once before. Specially if you’re one of those people who can’t remember a name if your life depends on it, but never forget a face.
Humans as species are not the only ones who look at each other’s faces for clues of communication and survival. Sheep do that too.
And so do some wasps. And it’s an ability that reap them rewards, as researchers are finding out.
After devising a series of tests, they concluded that members of multiple-queens colonies, the P. fuscatus wasps, learn to recognize each other’s faces to understand their own place in the colony.
It’s an important skill for wasps, and for humans too. It’s a common fact that we tend to relate to the view of peoples’ faces differently than with any other part of their bodies.
We also have different reasons to be able to tell each other apart, but the common denominator is determined by our living in society.
That’s why is so disturbing to look at a Japanese human-like doll, and the whole set of philosophical quests such a well craft dummy elicits on us.
But with wasps, them being fierce creatures and all, it’s all great and dandy, as long as they keep their hard-earned ability to recognize faces to their own species.
Imagine if they’d decide it’s important for them to look closely at our own faces, before inexorably sting us to death. Or at least, to utter discomfort?
It’d be a mad world, indeed. Certainly mad enough to get those angry entomologists to settle their concerns about Giant Wetas quickly and start to run for their dear lives.
We would.

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