The most interesting find of 2012

Caterpillar of Paraclystis integer, a termite inquiline from Mozambique (lateral and dorsal views) [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

Caterpillar of Paraclystis integer, a termite inquiline from Mozambique (lateral and dorsal views) [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

Well, the first year of my blogging is nearly over, but I think I still have time for one more story. And it is a good one.

Earlier this year I was in the spectacular Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, doing my usual things – chasing katydids with a net and a recorder, taking pictures, and flipping rocks. And under one of these rocks I found something that truly tested the extent of my entomological knowledge. One evening, while looking for ants and crickets on the rim of a deep limestone gorge, I lifted a big, flat boulder and underneath found a colony of termites. But something wasn’t right. Why were some of these termites longer? And wierd looking? It took me a few seconds to realize that the colony was filled with creatures that looked very much like termites, and behaved in a similar fashion, but clearly were something else.

A fragment of the carton structure of the Schedorhinotermes lamanianus colony with termite soldiers and caterpillars of Paraclystis integer [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

A fragment of the carton structure of the Schedorhinotermes lamanianus colony with termite soldiers and caterpillars of Paraclystis integer [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

At first I couldn’t even guess what these creatures were. Mutant termites, an undescribed phylum, aliens? There were hundreds of them, easily as many as the real termites. I scooped a bunch into a container to have a closer look. OK, they were not aliens – they had mandibles and six short legs. So they were insects. But what kind? I had no idea.
Later I examined them under a microscope and saw that they had crocheted prolegs on the abdomen – so they must be caterpillars, that is moth or butterfly larvae. But they also had strange processes all along the body that looked strangely similar to candy-corn. The peculiar caterpillars turned out to be Paraclystis integer, members of the cloth-moth family (Tineidae). But what were they doing in the termite colony?

Although these caterpillars and their presence in the colonies of the termites of the genus Schedorhinotermes have been known since early 1900′s nobody really knows what the nature of the relationship between these two groups of insects is. It is tempting to speculate that the caterpillars’ strange candy-corn processes produce something that the termites like, but this is not the cases. They appear to be purely of a sensory nature and are not connected to any glands. Even more strangely, the caterpillars seem to have little tolerance for termites, and often chase them away if approached. At times, however, they allow termites to lick something from the dorsal part of their abdomen. There is one casual observation made in the late 1960′s (Harris 1968. Proc. R. ent. Soc. Lond B. 37: 103-113) suggesting that the larvae accompany the termites on their foraging trips at night, but what exactly they feed on is unknown.

I am hoping that in 2013 the mystery of the candy-corn caterpillars and termites will be one I am able to solve. And if I do, you will be first to learn about it on The Smaller Majority blog. Thanks for reading and a Happy New Year!

11 thoughts on “The most interesting find of 2012

    • I am using the older name (P. integer) because this name has been used in papers far more recent than Gozmány’s 1966 synonymy. He synonymized a whole bunch of species from different genera from across most of the continent into Acridotarsa melipecta, which makes me extremely suspicious (although, of course, he could be right.)
      The nest had larvae of different sizes, but I didn’t spend too much time looking for them. I hope to be able to go back and do some proper work on this system.

  1. Thank you for this wonderful blog, I love the fantastic pictures as well as your writing style. I’m a molecular biologist and sadly know next to nothing about insects. Thanks for filling me in! Happy new year, and we’re looking forward to the 2013 blogs.

  2. I’m really impressed with your writing abilities and also with the layout for your weblog. Is that this a paid subject matter or did you modify it your self? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is uncommon to see a great weblog like this one these days..

  3. Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text in your content seem to be running off the
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