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.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!