Masters of disguise

The amount of small wildlife that lives right under my nose is probably countless. It blows my mind every time I stop to think about what is watching my every move at this very moment. Some animals are so well camouflaged that they simply seem to not be there at all, unless you accidentally manage to spot them, like this bark spider and stick insect, both from Tembe Elephant Park.

Camouflage - this bark spider ( Caerostris  sp.) was accidentally spotted by my dear husband at Tembe's research camp.  

Camouflage - this bark spider (Caerostris sp.) was accidentally spotted by my dear husband at Tembe's research camp.

A stick insect from Tembe Elephant Park.  Photo by Hayden Rattray

A stick insect from Tembe Elephant Park.

Photo by Hayden Rattray

When it comes to defensive mimicry, the leaf katydid nymph from the genus Eurycorypha, is an extraordinary example. I found one amongst  spiny sugar ants (Polyrhachis spp.) around some flowers in Tembe Elephant Park, but I wasn't certain if it was there by coincidence or on purpose. Recently, a very similar species from Gorongosa National Park (if not the same) was posted on Facebook by Piotr Naskrecki, and he mentioned that the katydid nymph was mimicking Polyrhachis ants. I couldn't agree more with the Orthoptera "guru" -  when the green coloration underneath the katydid is back-dropped against foliage, it creates the illusion of an ant petiole (waist) with spines just as in Polyrhachis ant species.  But how these "baby" katydids remain undetected around an ant colony is something intriguing. Ants are social insects that rely on pheromones to recognize each other, and are extremely hostile towards intruders. This is a behaviour that can be exploited through chemical mimicry. Certain insects produce pheromones to confuse or mislead the ants into believing they are one of them or just part of the background. Not only does this allow for them to safely hide amongst greater numbers, but the insect further gets the protection of its "family mates".

Ant-mimicking katydid nymph ( Eurycorypha  sp.) from Tembe.

Ant-mimicking katydid nymph (Eurycorypha sp.) from Tembe.

By the time they reach maturity, the once ant-mimicking katydids grow into leaf-mimicking katydids.

An adult  Eurycorypha  sp. (leaf katydid) from Ndumo Game Reserve.

An adult Eurycorypha sp. (leaf katydid) from Ndumo Game Reserve.


Mantises are also magnificent masters of disguise, blending into their surroundings to ambush prey or to avoid becoming one. 

African ghost mantis  (P  hyllocrania paradoxa).   Photo: Zephian Alberts

African ghost mantis (Phyllocrania paradoxa).

Photo: Zephian Alberts

African twig mantis ( Popa spurca ) from Tembe Elephant Park.

African twig mantis (Popa spurca) from Tembe Elephant Park.

The flower mantises are practically flowers themselves. Their flower resemblance is so good that insects attempt to "pollinate" them, only to find themselves eaten alive.  
This one in particular is the nymph of an eyed-flower mantis (Pseudocreobotra wahlbergi), reasonably common in the Zululand region. Their common name has to do with the eyespot marking they develop on each fore wing after reaching maturity. These eyespots are used in threat display to frighten potential predators.

Eyed-flower mantis nymph  (  Pseudocreobotra wahlbergi),  an example of aggressive mimicry.  Photo: Zephian Alberts

Eyed-flower mantis nymph (Pseudocreobotra wahlbergi), an example of aggressive mimicry.

Photo: Zephian Alberts

Now look closer...

Unknown lichen-mimicking reduviid nymph, from Tembe.

Unknown lichen-mimicking reduviid nymph, from Tembe.

There is an assassin bug nymph (family Reduviidae) on this Usea lichen, perfectly blending in. This unbelievable mini beast was found by the lovely myrmecologist Dr Heather Campbell, while doing her research at Tembe Elephant Park. How she managed to spot this little creature, I have no idea! I've been searching through Usnea lichen since then, to no avail.

We have still not been able to identify this incredible critter. However, it is likely that this species has already been described in its adult form, but in this early stage, it is hard to determine species as they can change so drastically.

Nature will never cease to amaze me!

Beetle Juice

When talking about beetles, many of us don't think of them as being threatening creatures. Spiders for example, are the object of ancient fear even though the majority of them are quite harmless. But some beetles are far from innocent.

Ground beetles (family Carabidae), are known to be excellent predators from their larval stage onward. The larger ground beetle species in the tribe Anthiini are fast moving, equipped with powerful mandibles and the incredible ability of ejecting a caustic spray in self-defense. This noxious secretion is produced by pygidial glands located in their abdomen, and can be extremely unpleasant as I once experienced.                

The day I met Termophilum burchelli, also known in South Africa as "oogpister" ("eye pisser"), it was not a friendly encounter. I saw a beautiful insect (with warning colours I enthusiastically ignored), rushing towards the thick bushes, so I ran and caught it bare handed. Not only was I bitten by the poor terrified creature....but I also had my face covered by an unpleasant acidic spray that made it burn terribly. I immediately ran into the house with my eyes barely opened to wash it off with water. Here is the "culprit" on the run:


"Oogpister"Termophilum burchelli, from Tembe Elephant Park

This poor little man also had a run with a ground beetle... 

Photo by Val Gunter



Cypholoba graphipteroides, from Zululand Rhino Reserve. 

Another beetle that packs a punch (and was underestimated by me) is the bombardier ant's guest beetle (Cerapterus sp.). Like most paussines, they are myrmecophiles (associated with ants, hence common name), living among the ant's brood on which immature and adult beetles feed. The glandular hairs from their body and antennae, produce an aromatic secretion that is attractive to ants, allowing them to live within their nest. But it is their defense mechanism that really blows my mind. If molested, these formidable beetles can bombard a boiling-hot chemical spray from their abdomen in visible, and incredibly, audible explosive bursts, like a mini atomic weapon. 

Bombardier ant's guest beetle (Cerapterus sp.) from Tembe Elephant Park

During reproduction time, mature males leave the ants nest and are often attracted to lights, the reason why some of them would find their way into my old house in Tembe. In summer our house used to get so crowded with insects that we would spend hours photographing and relocating them (my paradise!).  So when I saw those cute little beetles climbing on the wall I grabbed one of them without hesitation and had a strange sensation; my finger tips felt burnt and were stained brown. Not certain of what had just happened, I took it outside to have a better understanding. Poking it gently, it sprayed a gaseous cloud from all around its abdomen - just like a cartoon with mini atomic cloud and "puff" sound and all. Not only is the gas an irritant, but it is hotter than boiling water. It is believed that they use their hard wing covers (elytra) as a surface to bounce the hot spray to make this defensive cloud around their bodies. Definitely one of the most awesome little beetles out there. It packs a punch, and earns respect!