2012: Advent Biology: A bug’s dinner

by on December 2, 2012

Imagine a spider, sitting quietly on the corner of its web waiting patiently for dinner to come knocking. A couple of the silk strands vibrate and our spider responds by advancing towards its supposed prey. However, other things can make good vibrations! In this case, an assassin bug (scientific name Stenolemus bituberus) has been plucking the strands of the web to lure the fearsome spider into a trap of its own. It launches a strike to seize the spider with its spiny front legs and stabs with long tube-like mouthparts, injecting toxins and digestive juices into the spider. This can overcome prey much bigger than the assassin itself so the spider’s struggles cease quickly, and it becomes just a tasty meal, outwitted by a hunter like itself.

This insect is one of many species of assassin bugs (Family Reduviidae), all of which are predators hunting other creepy-crawlies, including spiders, ants, termites, millipedes, cockroaches…Some species are blood feeders upon mammals; for example, the carrier of Chagas disease in the Americas is of the same family. Assassin bugs are ‘true bugs’ with a rostrum (long tubular mouth) but unlike most other true bugs, who have two channels in this, it only has one tube, used for both injecting toxins and draining their prey of all its body fluids. Some species have a ‘cave organ’ for detecting potential food; others are able to tell from the silk draglines many spiders trail behind them whether they would be good to eat.  A number also are fluent in the art of disguise, covering their backs with dust and adding extra plant pieces or the remains of yesterday’s dinner, for camouflage against both prey and predator. Many species are quite striking when they aren’t pretending to be invisible, and they are among the more exotic pets kept by the interested…

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