Don’t talk too loudly, somebody may be listening

Next time you see some wild flowers growing on the side of a road, look closely, and if you are lucky you may be able to spot an ambush bug. These small, cryptic insects are members of the genus Phymata, who in their feeding habits and some of the elements of their morphology resemble miniature praying mantids. Although related to stink bugs and other members of the order Heteroptera, ambush bugs are sit-and-wait predators of insects, and like praying mantids carry large raptorial front legs, capable of catching prey twice the size of their own bodies.

An adult ambush bug female [Canon 7D, Canon MP-E 65mm, Canon 580EXII speedlight]
This in itself is pretty cool, but ambush bugs are capable of something that no other insect in the world can do: they can have a conversation with you. Well, maybe not a real conversation, but they can hear you, and they will reply to the sounds humans make.

A young nymph of the ambush bug (Phymata americana) from Concord, MA [Canon 1Ds MarkII, Canon MP-E 65mm, Canon MT-24EX twin light]
Both immatures and adults of ambush bugs are capable of producing sounds by using a stridulatory mechanism on their thorax. But unlike other stridulating insects, such as grasshoppers or katydids, the principal role of the sounds they produce appears to be not attraction of a mate, but rather fooling their prey into coming closer. Many insects, more than we have ever suspected, use acoustic signals to communicate, and ambush bugs exploit this behavior.

In order for the signal to be effective in attracting other insect, ambush bugs need to be able to mimic the sound of their intended prey. And thus they have evolved the ability to mimic many sounds they can hear. Prof. Matija Gogala from the Slovenian Museum of Natural History has made an incredible recording of an ambush bug having a “conversation” with a person whistling to the bug, and you can listen to it here.

Alas, the sound these insects make is too quiet for most of us to hear, and you would need a specialized microphone to pick up their replies. But still, I think it is pretty amazing that there is a tiny creature hiding somewhere in the bushes, listening to me and repeating my words, hoping that maybe I will get close enough that he can have a shot at catching me for dinner.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Susan Hague says:

    I have a dreadful suspicion their front legs for capturing prey is not the only thing they have in common with preying mantids. The mantis is not really trying to communicate when it looks you in the eye, or reaching out to you in friendship with is front legs. Oh no, he is sizing you up for dinner and checking whether his grasp will be able to retain you. Hmm.

  2. Sarah says:

    This is one of my all-time favorite entomology posts. You’re serving up a stream of wonders.

  3. D Rentz says:

    I miss Ambush Bugs, whether they can hear me or not. I don’t think we have any in Australia. [That should engender some sort of response!].

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