InSEX: Mating's Risqué Business in the Insect World

May 3, 2012

Last night I hosted an InSEX dinner at an undisclosed and secret location. No, we weren't eating insects (in fact, we had a lovely vegetarian meal). Instead, we were discussing their weird, wonderful, and various reproductive strategies!







Vietnamese Walking Stick, Baculum extradentatum

A great example of asexual reproduction





I also took some impressive beetles to show off


Here's an excerpt:




Sperm Wars-Unlike honeybees, dragonflies don't have exploding penises. Instead, they have an equally impressive mode of sperm competition. When a male dragonfly grabs a mateclasping her roughly behind the headhe carries her away for a nuptial flight. After some brief struggling, the male bends his abdomen around and inserts his aedeagus (that's insect for penis) into her reproductive tract. With his impressively spiked member he scoops out the sperm left over from a previous mating, thus ensuring it is his sperm and no other's that will fertilize the eggs she is about to lay...


But how does this all relate to the North Campus and L.A.'s urban nature? Simplewe found our first dragonfly at the pond! According to Museum Ornithologist, Kimball Garrett (yes, he does dragonfly identification too), this is a male Variegated Meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptum. He was sunning himself on a rock, possibly waiting for a female dragonfly to make an appearance. Unfortunately for him, none showed up while I was there.


Over the next few months, the pond will attract more and more adult dragonflies and, soon enough, we'll have them mating. In tandem, the coupled dragonflies will approach the water's surface and the female will lay her eggs. Unbeknownst to many, the immature form of dragonflies actually live underwater! After the eggs hatch, the dragonfly nymphs will find a cozy spot to hide in the reeds. It's a dangerous and murky life down there, I mean who would want to get eaten by a fish? One way that dragonflies can evade predators is through jet propulsion. They pull water into their rectal chamber and eject it at high speed, thereby propelling themselves in a forward direction, and hopefully out of harm's way.


When they're not trying to evade their own predators, dragonfly nymphs are voracious predators themselves! They have extendable mouthparts that can be "shot" out of their heads in less than three one-hundredths of a second. This is very fast indeed, and allows the nymphs to sit and wait until something comes within mouth's reach. As you can tell, dragonflies are much more than just pretty insects good for putting on greeting cards and tattooing onto various bodyparts. I mean, what other creature can you think of that has jaws of death, rectal propulsion, and a highly modified penis for sperm removal?


Male Variegated Meadowhawk basking in the sun


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Walking Sticks Mysteriously Appear in Museum

January 5, 2012

Last Friday two Indian walking sticks, Carausius morosus, mysteriously showed up inside the Museum! They didn't escape from the Insect Zoo (we've never kept this species of walking stick before), and we haven't been able to find out exactly how they got here. What we do know is that the insects were discovered after a visitor felt one "fall" on his arm, and then promptly reported it to a staff person.

One of the Indian walking sticks found in the Museum!Indian walking sticks, a.k.a. laboratory walking sticks, are one of the most common walking sticks around. They are often kept as pets and classroom teaching tools, and their eggs can even be purchased on eBay for fish food! Surprisingly these insects have recently established themselves in our area through inadvertent or purposeful introductions. How does one inadvertently introduce stick insects into the environment?Indian walking sticks can reproduce parthenogenetically, that is without sexual reproduction. Therefore females can produce eggs regardless of the presence of males. The eggs are very small, about 3mm in length, and look a lot like tiny stones. Female sticks lay their eggs by dropping them directly to the ground, where they accumulate in the leaf litter. When they are in captivity, fecal material, partially chewed leaves, and eggs accumulate very quickly at the bottom of walking stick enclosures. To keep the insects clean and safe it is important for owners to clean this material out on a regular basis. For the untrained stick keeper, it is very easy to inadvertently discard eggs. Often this will be directly into the trash, or maybe even into the backyard compost pile. Paired with purposeful introductions, "I can't keep this pet anymore, I'm sure it will be better outside," is it any wonder that these insects have established themselves in numerous areas around Los Angeles?

Indian walking stick eggs (photo courtesy of Dr. Arakelian)According to Dr. Gevorak Arakelian, Senior Biologist in the L.A. County Department of Agricultural Commissioner, Indian walking sticks have recently been downgraded from a B rating to a C rating. This means that they aren't viewed as serious pests that need to be eradicated. However, for gardeners and the nursery industry these insects can still be troublesome. They eat a wide variety of landscape plants including rose, bramble, camelia, hibiscus, geranium, oak, and English ivy (the list goes on). Next time you find mysterious chew marks on your rose bush, take a closer look and see if you can find a walking stick hiding nearby.For more information check out Dr. Arakelian's Indian walking stick fact sheet.

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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