Termite puppet grows on newly discovered beetle species’ back to deceive real termites into feeding it

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This species of rove beetle has mastered one of Earth’s craziest forms of mimicry.

 

Image: Bruno Zilberman & Carlos M. Pires-Silva

A beetle that can disguise itself as a termite and trick real termites into feeding it? Yes, you have read that right. Meet Austrospirachtha carrijoi, a species of rove beetle that was recently discovered in northern Australia. This amazing insect has an enlarged abdomen that covers its entire body and looks remarkably like a termite. It even has three pairs of fake appendages that mimic the antennae and legs of termites. The termite puppet is so realistic that it even has the same body segments as termites.

But why would a beetle want to look like a termite? The answer is simple: to get free food. Termites are social insects that live in colonies and share food through a process called trophallaxis, where they regurgitate digested food to other members of the colony. The beetle takes advantage of this by begging for food from the termites, who mistake it for one of their own. The beetle may also use chemical signals to fool the termites, since they are blind and rely on smell and touch to communicate.

A rove beetle (right) tricking a Malaysian army ant. Image: Joseph Parker

The beetle’s strategy is very clever, because it allows it to avoid detection and predation, while enjoying a constant supply of food. Once inside the termite nest, the beetle can relax and enjoy the termite room service for the rest of its life. The beetle’s mouthparts are very small, so it probably cannot eat eggs or larvae, unlike some other beetles and spiders that mimic ants and raid their colonies.

The new species was described by Bruno Zilberman and Carlos M. Pires-Silva from the University of Queensland in a paper published in Zootaxa. They named it after Dr. John Carrijo, a Brazilian entomologist who specializes in rove beetles and who helped them collect specimens in Australia.

Not all species that parasitize termite colonies exhibit such intricate camouflage. There are other extant species within the Staphylinidae family that basically show a gradual transition into this sort of adaptation. These other species serve as an illustration of simpler adaptations that probably served as precursors to the level of complexity seen in A. carrijoi (see image below).

Other actually living species within the Staphylinidae family that show a gradual transition into this sort of adaptation. Source

Rove beetles are known for being masters of mimicry, and there are many examples of rove beetles that resemble ants, spiders, wasps, and other insects. However, this is the first time that a rove beetle has been found to mimic a termite so perfectly. The authors suggest that this is an example of convergent evolution, where different organisms evolve similar solutions to similar problems.

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