It has been a busy couple of months for me – first organizing a month-long biodiversity survey in Gorongosa National Park, then dealing with various aspects of our newly created E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory. But now that I am home I can process all the photos taken in Mozambique and, finally, write a few long overdue blog posts.
Our second biodiversity survey of the park started with a week of sampling in the Sand Forest, an interesting plant community near Chitengo, the park’s main camp. While somewhat underwhelming at first glance, this stunted forest that grows on remarkably infertile, pale and sandy soils, produced some of the finest discoveries of the survey. It was also an exciting place to be, on the account of roaming elephants (who really didn’t like people invading their private feeding ground) and a radio-collared male lion (who, I was told by our lion researcher Paola Bouley, might actually “like” people).
The first thing that I noticed was that many tree trunks in the forest were covered with extensive carpets of silk. This was great because for the last two years I had been searching in Gorongosa for the elusive webspinners (Embiidina), an order of semi-social insects that build intricate silk corridors on trees and rocks. No species of webspinners has ever been recorded from Mozambique but I knew that they had to be there. To be precise, I did find a webspinner once in Gorongosa, but it was an introduced, Asian species Oligotoma saundersii, which has a nearly cosmotropical distribution. But the animals on the trees of the sand forest were clearly something very different. For one, they were huge. I am used to webspinners being tiny, brownish insects that you look for with a magnifying glass. But one adult female that we collected was pitch black and nearly 25 mm long, which probably makes her the largest webspinner in the world (the largest webspinner that I could find a record of is the South American Clothoda, which grows to 20 mm.) But despite their size these insects were not easy to find. I ripped through dozens of their silky colonies but found only a handful of specimens. Only later did I realize that during the day these insects were hiding deep in the crevices at the base of the tree or in debris-filled nooks between branches.
Webspinners have fascinated me for a long time. They are one of those animal groups that don’t attract much attention because of their small size and unassuming physique but, once you learn about their biology, they become very hard to ignore. The webspinners’ most obvious claim to fame is their ability to spin silk. But how do they do it? Spiders spin silk from spinnerets located at the tip of their abdomen (opisthosoma), but all insects (caterpillars, ant larvae, gryllacridid crickets, to name a few) have them located on their mouthparts. Or so the entomologists thought. And so strong was this conviction that early morphological descriptions of webspinners included silk-producing tubercles on the labrum which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be purely imaginary – as it happens, webspinners possess unique silk-producing, glands on their front tarsi, and not on their mouths. This explains their characteristic behavior of constantly waving the front legs – they are spinning silk, but the individual strands as so microscopically thin as to be completely invisible to the human eye. Only once hundreds or thousands of individual strands have been spun together do they begin to appear as a thin sheet of soft silk. The proteins that make up the spider and moth silk are some of the strongest organic compounds, resistant to breaking and very flexible. In contrast, the webspinners’ silk is remarkably weak and tears quite easily. This may have to do with its primary function – rather than being used to capture prey or protect a fragile developing pupa, it is merely a cloaking device that makes the insects invisible to ants while the webspinners graze lichens that cover bark or rocks. I have watched ants walk right on top of webspinners separated only by a diaphanous sheet of silk, while the webspinners were happily grazing on lichens, completely unperturbed by the presence of their deadly enemies.
The second function of the silk is the protection of eggs, which the female covers with silk and guards them until they hatch. She stays with the eggs mostly to chase away parasitoid scelionid wasps and plokiophilid bugs, and her presence increases the survival of eggs by 50%. But once the eggs are about to hatch the mother must remove the silk, otherwise the nymphs will not be able to emerge. She then stays with her children until they are ready to fend for themselves, initially masticating their food and spinning the silk corridors. She then leaves to start another colony.
Interestingly, some webspinners are the only social insects that are inquilines within the societies of other social animals – two species of Oligotoma from India build their societies inside colonies of a social spider Stegodyphus sarasinorum (but continue to spin their own silk). Another, Oligotoma termitophila, lives in termite colonies in Sudan.
So, what’s next for my Mozambican webspinners? Next time I am in Gorongosa I plan to look into their biology, and figure out what their colony structure and dispersal patterns are. The species also needs to be identified and described, which I should be able to do once I bring the specimens back from Mozambique (we hit a little snag with the export permits). I also plan to look for other species on Mt. Gorongosa. Who knows, I may also be able to find the webspinners’ closest relatives, the amazing zorapterans.