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A wingless form of zorapteran (Zorotypus hubbardi) from Sapelo Island, GA

A wingless form of zorapteran (Zorotypus hubbardi) from Sapelo Island, GA

When I set off for a long weekend on Sapelo Island in Georgia to teach insect photography at the BugShot workshop, it never occurred to me that the trip would culminate in completing a life-long quest. I am not one to keep bucket lists of things to see or do but, as an entomologist, I always hoped to personally collect all extant orders of insects. The most conservative classifications list about 28 orders of these animals, while others divide the class into more ordinal taxa (for example, Vitaly M. Dirsh divided the Orthoptera into 14 separate orders; thankfully nobody paid any attention to such craziness.) Regardless of the semantics, over the years I have collected all major lineages of insects, including such rarities as the Mantophasmatodea (in fact, I collected the second live specimen ever found; the first one was collected by Namibian entomologist John Irish about 10 minutes earlier), Grylloblattodea, or Strepsiptera. But one group has consistently eluded my grabby hands – the Zoraptera.

Warm, humid, and festooned with Spanish moss, the oak forest of Sapelo Island, GA, is an ideal habitat for the Zoraptera.

Warm, humid, and festooned with Spanish moss, the oak forest of Sapelo Island, GA, is an ideal habitat for the Zoraptera.

Described in 1913 by Italian entomologist Filippo Silvestri, Zoraptera are the least diverse order of insects – only 39 species are known, all in the genus Zorotypus (Mantophasmatodea have fewer species, but are divided into multiple genera and families.) As far as rare insects go, Zoraptera may appear somewhat underwhelming in their size and morphology – most species are only about 3 mm long, usually pale yellow or brown, blind and wingless. Their preferred habitat is also not very sexy as Zoraptera are found mostly in rotten logs across tropical and subtropical parts of the world, feeding on fungal hyphae or springtails. They are rather picky in their selection of habitat, and will only survive in logs that have reached the “Zorapteran stage” of decomposition – nothing more, nothing less (the five-stage classification of log decay was introduced in 1959 by E.O. Wilson, who to this day considers himself a zorapteran aficionado). Looking for Zoraptera is akin to looking for a grain of salt in a sugar bowl – in a log teaming with ants, termites and springtails you need to be able to spot a nearly microscopic, whitish insect that runs frantically in all directions, whose body proportions are only slightly different from those of a newly hatched termite nymph. It took me several hours of ripping through decaying logs and enduring countless stings of trap-jawed ants (Odontomachus) before I noticed an eensy dot of an insect that looked a little different. Even as I was putting it in a vial I was not quite sure that it was really a zorapteran, but my suspicion was confirmed the moment I looked at it through the macro lens of my camera.

Most zorapterans are pale, wingless and blind. Winged forms only appear if the decaying long in which they live can no longer support the population of these insects.

Most zorapterans are pale, wingless and blind. Winged forms only appear if the decaying log in which they live can no longer support the population of these insects.

But of course one should not judge the Zoraptera by their unassuming demeanor, for their behavior and reproductive biology are some of the most interesting among all insects. First, despite their name (zor [Gr.]=pure, aptera=wingless), winged forms are found in all species, albeit they only appear when the time comes to leave the log when it shifts from the “Zorapteran” to “Passalid stage” of putrefaction. And, once a new, nicely rotten habitat is found, the wings fall off. This type of behavior is not unique to the Zoraptera (aphids display a similar wing polymorphism), but what happens next is.

Zoraptera are not truly social, but often live in groups of 30+ individuals of various ages. But, unlike termites and ants, all individuals in the colony can reproduce, at least in theory. The colony is strictly patriarchal – the dominant individual is always the oldest male who maintains a harem of females and fights off younger males. Only when the senility kicks in, younger males have a chance to take over the top spot. This type of a male-dominated society is unique among arthropods, where it is always the females who control both reproduction and individual status in the colony.

Even more interesting is the way males inseminate the females. All across the animal kingdom males tend to be rather generous with the dispensation of their reproductive cells (to put it mildly), while females are frugal with their eggs, and choosy when it comes to mating. But in Zoraptera things are different – to inseminate the female the male produces only one (one!) sperm cell. And not just any sperm – the zorapteran spermatozoa are about 3 mm long, which, if you recall, is the average body length of the entire animal. Not surprisingly, males of these insects are not particularly eager to mate and it is the female who does most of the courting. Why this happens is not entirely clear, but most likely the single, giant sperm cell fills the female spermatheca (a sperm storage space that allows the female to inseminate eggs long after the copulation) and precludes her from mating with other males.

I wish I could have spent more time in Georgia – it would have been nice to see armadillos in a form other than flattened pancakes on the highway. On my drive from Savannah to Atlanta I counted 27 carcasses of these animals killed by cars.

I wish I could have spent more time in Georgia – it would have been nice to see armadillos in a form other than flattened pancakes on the highway. On my drive from Savannah to Atlanta I counted 27 carcasses of these animals killed by cars.

As I drove back from Savannah to Atlanta, counting armadillo roadkill (27), I couldn’t help but wonder what the bar scene of our species would look like if men produced only one, 6 feet long reproductive cell during each mating. In the end, I am happy for the zorapteran males, but will keep my millions, thank you very much.

Zorapteran (Zorotypus hubbardi), the only species of the order Zoraptera found in the United States.

Zorapteran (Zorotypus hubbardi), the only species of the order Zoraptera found in the United States.

BugShot 2014: Sapelo Island, GA

Polyrhachis

Intimate portraits: A queen ant (Polyrhachis armata)

My arrival in Johannesburg has brought a welcome respite from the unbearable winter of New England, and tomorrow I fly to Gorongosa National Park to begin preparations for the official opening of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory on March 27th. Stay tuned for updates and photos!

But there is something else that I am very excited about. Last year I was invited by Alex Wild to teach an insect photography workshop in Belize, the famous BugShot, and this year we are doing it again. This time the workshop will take place on Sapelo Island in Georgia, a place I have never been to but always wanted to visit. Insect life is bound to be spectacular – among other things I expect to find there Brunneria borealis, North America’s largest praying mantis and the world’s only fully parthenogenetic species of these insects. There are webspinners (Embioptera) there, two species of sylvan katydids (Pseudophyllinae), and over 100 species of other orthopterans. This is going to be good.

High-speed macrophotography: Periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim)

High-speed macrophotography: Periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim)

The workshop will take place on May 22-25 and there are still a few empty slots left. If you want to learn macrophotography, perfect your technique or learn a new one, or simply find out amazing facts about invertebrates, then you should join entomologists and photography experts Alex Wild, John Abbott, and myself on this fun adventure. Visit the BugShot website to find more details.

Wide-angle macro: Sylvan katydid (Celidophylla albiomacula)

Wide-angle macro: Sylvan katydid (Celidophylla albiomacula)

Time lapse macrophotography: A molting katydid (Enyaliopsis petersi)

Time lapse macrophotography: A molting katydid (Enyaliopsis petersi)

Ambient light macrophotography: Atlantic shield-back (Atlanticus testaceus)

Ambient light macrophotography: Atlantic shield-back (Atlanticus testaceus)

Mozambique Diary: A welcoming conehead

A female conehead (Ruspolia consobrina) found in a Maputo hotel.

A conehead katydid (Ruspolia consobrina) found in a Maputo hotel.

Last night I arrived in Mozambique’s capital Maputo. It was almost midnight when I finally got to my hotel, tired to the point of barely being able to keep my eyes open after more than 20 hours on the plane. But the scent of tropical, humid air was too much for me to resist, and so I put on my headlamp and took a quick stroll around the hotel’s grounds. 

It is the wet season now, and although it did not rain last night the atmosphere felt very humid. But it quickly became apparent that the hotel’s garden had been sprayed with pesticides, as evidenced by almost no insect activity on its beautifully manicured lawns. Across the street from the hotel insects were flying around street lamps and several species of crickets and katydids could be heard in a distance; I even heard the unmistakable call of a pamphagid grasshopper. “Oh, well”, I thought, and at that moment a large katydid flew in from across the fence and landed on the wall in front of me. It was a female conehead katydid (Ruspolia consobrina), a species I knew well from Gorongosa. After a few minutes I found a second individual, trapped in the foyer of the hotel.

Coneheads of the genus Ruspolia are handsome insects, with bodies resembling blades of grass, which makes sense as these are the plants they mostly feed on. Their mandibles are massive and strangely asymmetrical, a feature they share with several other grass-feeding katydid genera. Why is one mandible, usually the left one, much larger than the other is unclear, but it likely helps with stabilizing and cracking seeds of grass that these insects like to eat. And because they feed on such nutritious food, bodies of Ruspolia can get very fat. Combine it with the fact that coneheads can occur in large, almost plague-like numbers in certain parts of Africa, and it is not surprising that they feature prominently in the diet of many African peoples. They high fat content also allows coneheads to survive long periods of low food availability, or even starvation (a topic I covered in an earlier post).

I quickly snapped a few pictures of the katydid, happy to see it minutes after my arrival, and collapsed on the bed on the verge of total exhaustion. Of course I woke up a couple of hours later, unable to fall back asleep because of the time change and so, here I am, writing this blog well before sunrise – a first for me.

Ruspolias

Coneheads (R. consobrina) are highly polymorphic – these three individuals are from the same population in Gorongosa National Park.