Friday, September 21, 2012

Creature Feature: Assassin Bug.

Some of you have probably noticed little ads on YouTube or Blip for a cartoon whose tagline is "nature is dirty."Yes, nature is dirty on every single level. It's all about screwing, killing, mind control, and getting high - you know, things that one would expect from the mafia. That said, nature even comes equipped with its own band of assassins...

Photo by Debbie Roos.

...who just so happen to be insects.

There are a lot of leafhopper-ish bugs under the big happy family of assassin bugs. They get their name from being ambush predators, mostly of other insects, but also vertebrates. They all belong to the family Reduviidae, which is related to water bugs. I really hate doing single entries on whole families of things, but this really is an interesting bunch. There are about 7000 species in total. This is not doing the whole family justice.

All assassin bugs have venom. For those of you out there who aren't toxicologists, most types of venom contain digestive enzymes. Assassin bugs inject a mix of these enzymes and an anaesthetic into  the skin of their target. In the case of insects, the internal tissues are also liquefied. The resulting juice is then sucked up through the assassin bug's strawlike rostrum like some horrible smoothie.


Since there are so many kinds of assassin bugs, it's hard to make any sort of generalization about them. You can probably find an assassin bug near you, but whether it will be after your blood or not depends on exactly where you are. Some kill unwanted pests, like roaches, moths, Japanese beetles, and mosquitoes; others drink mammalian blood just like mosquitoes. There is a chance that bloodsuckers in South America might harbor a particularly nasty disease simply called "Chagas' disease"- gross stuff comes with the hematophage territory. 

Chagas' disease is carried by assassin bugs in the tropical Americas. Actually, if you want to be technical, Chagas' disease is caused by a parasite on the assassin bug called Trypanosoma cruzi  - a parasite of a parasite, if you will. It is deposited in the bug's feces, which easily gets into human skin with but a scratch. The most obvious sign of the disease is localized swelling around where the bug's feces were deposited, but if left untreated, the protists strike the muscles and heart. The bloodsucking assassin is just a vector in this protist's life; I'd say "don't shoot the messenger," but that's really the best way to stop the bug from spreading feces. Like I said, nature is dirty. 

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