Old-time circus sideshows knew how to capitalize on the human fascination with anything bizarre, disgusting, or taboo. Times have changed, and audiences are no longer comfortable plunking down cash just to stare at midgets and full-body tattoos. But who can deny that the fascination is still there?
So let us turn to the rest of the animal kingdom, where gross is normal and anatomical absurdity is par for the course. Welcome to the gen-u-ine, three-ring. . .
Step right up, ladies and gentlesquid! Today and forever only, the Circus of the Spineless is ABSOLUTELY FREE! That's right, there is no charge for you to come and admire the best of the beasts!
But be warned, if you find yourself falling in love with our spineless friends: hunting invertebrates can lead to a complete loss of dignity. Wanderin' Weeta points out that oily ooze and dead weeds are hazards of the job if you want to get up close and personal with pretty little anemones and tube worms. So if you're not up for it, sit back and let us bring the invertebrates to you!
Ring One: FREAKS!
image from wikimedia commons
Let's start with the giants. Dave Hubble's ecology spot brings us Britain's biggest fly--the Hornet Robberfly. Despite their impressive size of over an inch and their disturbing resemblance to hornets, these chaps are quite scarce and may be a conservation concern.
But the big insects of today are nothing compared to the big insects of yester-era. Back in the Carboniferous, griffenflies reached wingspans of TWO FEET! The Dragonfly Woman explains why these giant dragonfly ancestors could never survive in the modern world--which may elicit relief or grief, depending on how you feel about dog-sized insects.
No sideshow would be complete without a Fat Man. Or a Fat Ant? Certain individuals of honeypot ant, called repletes, serve as swollen storage tanks for the rest of the colony. Wild About Ants shares some beautiful images of a species of honeypot ant native to Tuscon.
Next, along the lines of the Bearded Woman, we have the Lobster Crawfish. How can a woman grow a beard? How can a crawfish possibly be called a lobster? Check out Miriam's taxonomic breakdown over at Deep-Sea News for the surprising answer (to the second question, not the first).
Further paradox can be found in the Flightless Grasshopper at Anybody Seen My Focus? The appropriately named Eastern Lubber Grasshopper may not be able to fly, but it has some very handsome coloration to show off on the ground!
Finally, combining the contradiction of an animal that refuses to conform with the repulsive beauty of a totally transparent body is the Deep-Sea Swimming Cucumber. Real Monstrosities describes how this cucumber defies cucumer-hood by elevating itself off the seafloor, then showing off its entire digestive process for all to see.
The swimming cucumber also has a fancy skin-shedding trick up it sleeve, which brings us to . . .
Ring Two: WORKING ACTS!
image from Rebecca in the Woods
You know what's incredibly gross and freaky? Insect metamorphosis. Yup. Year after year, uncounted caterpillars build body bags for themselves, digest their tissues into an unidentifiable slurry, and generate a new adult body.
When the adult emerges from the cocoon, its body is still bloated with the gooey remains of the deconstructed caterpillar, called meconium (yup, same name as fetus feces). Too heavy to fly, the adult has to excrete this material before it can take to the air. Anybody Seen My Focus? was "lucky" enough to view this voiding event in a newly emerged Luna Moth.
Even insects that skip out on cocoon construction do some pretty weird things. Ever seen an exuvia? That's the cast-off exoskeleton an insect leaves behind after every molt. Rebecca in the Woods caught a beautiful shot of a dragonfly's exuvia, right next to the newly fledged grown-up.
But from the insects' point of view, molting is a yawn--after all, everybody does it. More specialized tricks include chemical defenses, like the nasty smells produced by harvestmen. Dave Hubble notices that the nymphs of certain bugs might mimic harvestmen in appearance, and wonders if they're trying to convince predators that they smell just as bad? A curious question indeed!
Popping back to dragonflies for a moment, Anybody Seen My Focus? found at least one species, the Halloween Pennant, that has the remarkably ability to ride out rainstorms.
Is it just me, or is this circus unduly dominated by insects? They're certainly not the only invertebrates with clever sideshow tricks. At Deep-Sea News, Miriam explains how female argonauts build shells for buoyancy and babysitting. Her post prodded me to dig up some old video of these open-ocean octopuses, which I posted at Squid A Day.
Female argonauts make graceful shells, while male argonauts deliver their sperm with detachable arms, bringing us to the third and final ring . . .
Ring Three: HOOTCHIE-COOTCHIE SHOW!
Let's start out tame. Who wants to get mooned by a dragonfly over at Focus?
Now for the graphic stuff. You've been warned.
Invertebrate sex made major headlines last month, with the discovery in Bleeker's squid that smaller males make bigger sperm. At Squid A Day, I pondered the evolutionary implications of flexible sex, while Dr. M at Deep-Sea News explained that there is more than one way to impregnate a squid.
When cephalopods are such big news, you can't expect me to shut up about them right away. Fun fact: male cephalopods, big or small, squid or argonaut, have a specialized sperm delivery arm called a hectocotylus, in addition to a penis.
This is, of course, one of many reasons that cephalopods are awesome. Insect sex organs are usually quite simple by comparison, but damselflies are the exception! Male damselflies apparently aspire to cephalopod-level awesomeness by developing secondary genitalia. Dave Hubble explains the structure and use of male mating hooks in the Common Bluetail.
Mating hooks are one thing, but what about . . . a mating needle?
No joke! There are numerous invertebrate species, from bedbugs to snails, in which the male simply stabs his organ indiscriminately into the female's body, delivering his sperm hypodermically. Um, OW! Dr. Bik at Deep-Sea News discusses this disturbing trend in nematode worms.
The inevitable result of mating is, of course, spawning, and ichneumon wasps surely have the ichiest spawning tactic of all. Some female ichneunoms deposits their eggs in a living host, which is consumed from the inside out when the ich eggs hatch. Um, EW! Dave Hubble takes on the tricky task of identifying a female ichneumon.
That's all, folks! Check in next month for the Sixty-Sixth Circus of the Spineless, and send your submissions winging, crawling, or swimming over to kzelnio at the gmail. Also, let him know if you'd like to host! Thanks, Kevin, for carrying the spineless torch high!