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Real ghouls of nature

By

Scott Seckel

Cannibals. Vampires. Zombies. Parasites that devour you from within.

Whatever abomination prowls your nightmares and sends cold sweat trickling down your spine, nature likely has it beat.

For All Hallows Eve, ASU Now turned to the Social Insect Research Group in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, where connoisseurs of the insect world like postdoctoral research fellow Christina Kwapich and PhD candidate Andrew Burchill can tell you about bug behaviors you can’t even imagine.

Let’s take a dive into real horror…

I melt you       

Larvae of beetles of the Epomis genus look like a nice little snack for frogs. They’re not. If a frog bites one and decides it don’t like it? Too bad. It’s not letting go. It’s going to eat the frog, and it will be neither quick nor pretty.

The larva is much faster than a frog, and it has huge hooked jaws that won’t budge from its lips, tongue, throat, or wherever it’s seized. Next, it digests the tissue. Strange thing, though — there’s no blood. The larva is secreting enzymes which melt flesh. It’s digesting the frog before it eats it. After a couple of days of this, Mr. Ribbit is so weakened he can’t move. The larva now begins tearing hunks of tissue out of the frog until all that's left is a little pile of bones.

You gonna eat that?

Many ants share food by regurgitation from mouth to mouth. It’s called trophallaxis. Hopefully we won't see that trend popping up like shared plates at hip restaurants.

Dracula ants

Ants regurgitate digested food from babies to adults (the opposite way from how birds do it). Adult Dracula ants (yes, that’s their real name) only get their sustenance from biting their larval sisters and drinking their blood. “However, it doesn't really hurt the larvae, they're just doing their part for the colony,” Burchill said.

This is going to hurt…

A male bed bug will mate with a female by piercing the wall of her body cavity. “His sperm travels through her blood, called hemolymph, to her ovaries!” Kwapich said. 

Heads up

Female phorid flies lay their eggs behind the head of an ant. The fly maggot develops inside the ant and feeds on its living body, from within. The fly then emerges as an adult — by popping the ant's head off.

We’ll be safe in the cellar

Assassin bugs strum spider webs, mimicking a trapped and weak prey species. The spider thinks an easy meal has just landed. Nope. Instead, death has arrived.

Are you my mother?

Botfly maggots feed on the living flesh and guts of mammals. As an adult, the female botfly does not lay her eggs directly on prey. She’s too big and noisy. Instead, she captures a mosquito and lays her egg on it. “The mosquito then visits an unsuspecting human or other mammal, and the botfly's larva jumps onto the skin!” Kwapich said.

Yes, my pretties

In Central America, there is a parasitic worm that causes the gaster (abdomen) of one ant species to turn bright red, like a berry. This "berry" is attractive to birds. They eat the ant, allowing the worm to complete its life cycle. When the bird poops, the parasite's eggs are spread around and collected by more ants.

Top illustration by Alex Cabrera/ASU Now 

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