Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Creature Feature: Photuris.

OK, I lied a little. There is one genus of insect that comes fairly close to the goings-on at "Roppongi." The problem is that humans fail really, really hard at interspecies sex.

"Find hole, insert hard-on." How hard can it be, right?

Answer: A LOT harder than that. Every species has certain behaviors - scents, pheromones, feather displays, and other mating rites - that keep them from successfully breeding with another species. Humans see things very differently from most of the species that they would like to mess around with (with many mammals having better smell and/or hearing), and thus miss critical hormonal cues. There are ways to make animals more than happy to do their thing, but in this case, rape is just easier for most humans.

Yeeeaaaaah...nature has a whole genus of bugs that do not just flip mating rites the bird, but abuse them. This is not done by some horrible new species of killer, flesh-eating wasp. The culprit is a firefly that is widespread over the continental U.S. and Canada.

Yes, a firefly.

Wait a minute. Everybody in the U.S. and some parts of Canada has seen these guys. Some elementary school kids had a huge drive to make Photuris pennsylvanica up there the state bug of Pennsylvania. Their larvae are called glowworms because they glow in the dark. They make summer nights awesome. Are these really the insects who have crossed the interspecies sex barrier?

Well, yes and no. Fireflies in the genus Photuris are not interested in getting it on with different fireflies. The females of Photuris still copy the light patterns of Photinus females to attract Photinus males. (That enough Greek for you? Good.)

Then they eat said males.

Photuris fireflies are not called "femme fatale" fireflies for nothing. The female Photuris isn't even interested in getting it on - all she wants is lucibufagin, a bad-tasting chemical that she can only get from eating a Photinus firefly. 

I guess this means you aren't calling me?

Male Photuris fireflies have a different problem: How does he find a mate when she's attracting men of another genus? Lucky guess. It's literally a shot in the dark when a male Photuris is looking for a voracious, poisonous woman. Some males have also taken to copying another species's lights, just to get her to come hither a little bit faster.

Insects are actually really, really good at stealing secrets. There are insects upon insects, as well as a few arachnids (remember Portia?) that live by cracking another bug's code for something. There are flies that trick ants into giving them food, parasites that make bees vomit a little bit of food, and a million other tricksters that would make great computer hackers. If Google was managed by insects, the internet would be dead within a week.

As for what a scientist has to say on this miraculous code-cracking?

"We humans are slow learners, but we're starting to catch on."  

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