Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Mantidflies, family Mantispidea

For those who are afraid of insects, the above image will probably haunt your dreams for years to come.  For the rest who are unfamiliar with this unusual insect, your first reaction may be to stare in disbelief at what, for the sake of your sanity, you hope must be photoshopped.  But it is a very real insect.  Appearing to be what happens when you graft the front end of a Praying Mantid on to the body of a wasp, this bizarre amalgamate of a creature is actually not closely related to either.

The Mantidflies or Mantsipids, family Mantispidae, are a group of insects who are most closely related to the Lacewings and Antlions.  Belonging to order Neuroptera (the net-winged insects), these predatory insects are, despite their potentially disturbing appearance, harmless to humans.  With over 400 species currently recognized and with ranges throughout much of the world, they are a surprisingly common, if poorly known group of insects. 

Nearly all Mantidflies have an appearance closer to a fusion between Lacewings and Mantids, but a couple species have developed a form of mimicry to avoid their own predators.  These, like the above Climaciella brunnea, have an appearance that is close enough to those of wasps to deter most predators.  Their Batesian Mimicry --the process of a harmless species having the appearance of a dangerous one-- has gone so far as to take on the form of whatever the most populous species of paper wasp from the genus Polistes is in their area.  Because of this, their appearance will vary from region to region despite all being members of the same species.

The Green Mantidfly, Zeugomantispa minuta

The larvae of Mantidflies are, like their adult form, strict carnivores.  In some species, the larvae will actively hunt the larvae of other insects, such as beetles and flies, where as others are known to be parasitoids of wasps, bees, and even spiders.  It is the case of the spider parasitoids there is a disturbingly high degree of specialization to be found.

Those species that target spiders can be divided into those with two distinct strategies.  The egg penetrators and the spider boarders.  The egg penetrators, like the above Green Mantidfly, have active larvae that seek out spider egg cases and, upon finding one, chew through the top and climb inside.  They then begin to feed on the developing spiders as they go through their various stages of metamorphosis safe within the spider's egg sac.  Eventually, an adult emerges from the empty cocoon and flies off.

The spider boarders, however, have lost the ability to chew into a spider's egg case and instead waits for a spider to walk by.  While this may seem close to suicidal, the tiny larvae can often climb on to a spider and latch on without difficulty.  The small, flattened larvae attaches itself to the underside of the abdomen where it can patiently wait.  It nourishes itself by feeding on the hemolymph, the blood, of the spider.  If the larvae has found itself on an immature spider, some species are known to simply crawl into the book lungs of the spider where it will be safe from being dislodged when the spider molts.

If the larvae is lucky, it will have found a female, but it will make do with a male as well.  Here, it will simply wait for the male to find a female to mate with and jump ship as the two mate.  Once on the female, it waits for its host to lay its eggs.  As the spider is spinning the silken cocoon around the eggs, the Mantidfly larvae crawls inside undetected.  It then enters its next stage, a grub-like form that has only one goal, feed.  Once it has consumed the contents of the egg cocoon, it will spin its own cocoon and metamorphosize into its adult form.

Such spider parasitoid Mantidflies are far from rare.  They are so common that all major groups of hunting spiders are attacked by these spider boarding larvae.  While web building spiders are safe from this fate, many still end up being the targets of the egg penetrating species.

Such spider boarders are so common that a fossil of one has actually been recently found.  Discovered by Michael Ohl of Berlin's Museum of Natural History, the larvae was found attached to a spider that had been unlucky enough to find itself not only with the parasitoid Mantidfly larvae but also caught in tree sap.  As the sap hardened over time, the two were preserved perfectly in amber.  Dating to around 44 million years ago, the specimen shows that this form of symbiosis has been used in what is essentially its present form for quite some time.  It is possible that this tactic goes back even farther as the earliest Mantidfly fossils date to the early Jurassic, 180 million years ago.

A spider in amber with a Mantidfly larvae still clinging to its host.

Images courtesy of, and Discover Magazine.
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Sunday, April 1, 2012

An encounter with god botherers

On Saturday, I was relaxing at home and there was a knock at the door.  This already irritated me as I had a long night at work.  I hadn't slept for a while and I just wanted to relax.  So after running to get a shirt, I opened the door and I immediately knew the fate that was in store for me.  There were two people standing there smiling and holding pamphlets.  There was only one possibility, god botherers...

I wanted to be polite so I resisted the immediate urge to say "I don't feel like playing make believe today" followed by closing the door and going back to my computer.  Instead, I listened to what they might have to say.  After all, it might prove fun to turn the tables on them in the process.

They started out by asking me how I was that day and I responded that I was fine, hiding my annoyance.  I asked the same in turn and they said they were well and then asked if I wanted to attend their church.  I knew this was coming and I responded with a no, thank you.  They further asked if I went to church, perhaps thinking that I was content with the one I went to (I do live in Oklahoma after all, where there is one on nearly every corner).  I replied that I did not go to one.  I did not directly say that I thought the idea was foolish as I did not think it was necessary.

One of them, who was obviously the younger and more enthusiastic of the two, asked me if I knew what happened to me when I died.  I said that yes, I did have a good idea of what happened.  I went on to elaborate by saying that as my neurons would begin to die and the synapses of my brain broke down, the being that was me would fade away.  Then, the atoms that composed my body would be dispersed back into the environment.

The younger and more talkative of the two asked "What about God? What about heaven and hell?"  I said that I saw no evidence or need for a deity and that the idea of hell was absurd if one believed in anything close to an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god.  But instead of hearing a well informed reply I was treated to a line that would kill a little more of my hope for the American education system.

The older and, at this point, visibly agitated one, asked me this: "What do you believe in then, the Big Bang?  Not even Darwin believed in that."

I was stunned.  If I was a less polite person I might have told them that I didn't have time for that kind of stupid and would have shut the door.  But instead I pointed out the tiny detail that the theory of the Big Bang didn't even exist till well after Charles Darwin's death and that there was no way for him to even know about it.

Unfazed, the now previously irritated and now slightly hostile one barked back that they weren't there to debate this.  I found this more than a little dishonest as that was clearly what they were there to do and I called them out on it.  I said that they were going door to door to try and make the argument that their particular god was the correct one and that others should believe in it.

They then said that they were leaving and I, despite myself, apologized if I had come across as rude.  I knew I hadn't despite being irritated by the whole ordeal, yet I defaulted to what is the 'proper' response in my society.  I did what equated to apologizing for not believing in a magic man in the sky and preferring little things like evidence and facts.  Afterwards I realized just how absurd this was and I felt a bit bad for it.  I shouldn't have to apologize to such door to door sales persons trying to con me into buying their pathetic excuse for  knowledge.

I didn't take one of their pamphlets as I thought that they had spent their money on it and I would just throw it away anyway, so what was the point.  It would end up in a landfill anyway, but I would rather it not be by my hand.  I somewhat regret this as I've often found that such pamphlets are a wealth of unintentional comedy.  Poor graphical design and laughable arguments are par for the course in such material.

I later wondered if I had invited them inside and let them go on a bit more while putting forth my own questions, or even asking them if they would be willing to talk about alternatives, if I might have done more good.  But, in retrospect, I doubt this.  In a different setting it might have worked, but not this one, both for those involved and my own mood and tiredness.  These were not well educated individuals but lackeys for their church.  They didn't understand the reasoning or concepts, just that they were taught that it was right.

I imagine they will remember the event as involving an angry atheist who hates god, but this doesn't bother me.  I know they are wrong and would only be seeking to fit the mornings events into their established world views.  Though I wish this wasn't the standard response, it is one that could not be helped.  If nothing else, maybe it will plant a little doubt into one of them.  Sadly though, it will most likely do nothing one way or the other.
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