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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Blasphemy Week: Pustulated Carrion Beetle.

What could possibly be worse than the Irukandji? It's really hard to beat an invisible, tentacled blob of poison when it comes to blasphemy. I really hope none of you are eating anything while reading this. This is...icky.

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The Pustulated Carrion Beetle (Nicrophorus pustulatus) is almost exactly what it sounds like: a beetle that mates and lays eggs on carrion, i.e. a corpse. The pustulated carrion beetle, however, ups the ante from mating on corpses to regular brood parasitism. It is native to North America, including much of the U.S. and Canada.

"Brood parasitism" does not involve any internal squick. No, this is parasitism done outside of the body, which actually opens itself up to more horror. Basically, "brood parasitism" is when an animal is forced to raise another animal's young - knowingly or not. Probably the most well-known example of this is the cuckoo bird, who has brood parasitism so down-pat that cuckoos will attack birds that refuse to raise their young. N. pustulatus is the pimp of brood parasitism, letting its young be reared by a number of insect species...oh, and snakes

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Now, I realize not many people are sympathetic to snakes. A lot of you probably think that snakes are terrible parents, leaving their young as soon as they're out of the eggs. This is not necessarily true; quite a few snakes, most notably Burmese pythons, are very protective of their clutches and may even raise the temperature around their eggs with muscular contractions. King cobras build nests. (In species where the snakes give live birth, well, there's considerable parental investment already.) Point is, as creatures who do tend to young, we should be terrified.

N. pustulatus is the first known insect brood parasite of a vertebrate, in this case the Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta) and a few other species (including the Gray Rat Snake, which is becoming endangered). The beetle lays her eggs directly proportionately to the amount of eggs in momma rat snake's nest (so no, it never wipes out a nest). Unaware that her babies are literally being devoured from the inside-out, the rat snake guards her nest while the beetle tends her larvae alongside. Look on the bright side: the beetles don't have a mafia.

If the idea of finding beetle larvae in snake eggs is not unholy enough to warrant a spot in this week, the implications of it sure are. Imagine a brood parasite of, say, humans along the lines of what these beetles do to snakes. (Before you say anything about that being impossible, there are wasps that lay eggs inside caterpillars; human skin would be no issue, and this is all hypothetical anyways.) You're welcome.

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