Beetle grows ‘termite’ on back to steal food

Puppet helps insect trick real termites into feeding it

In what may be one of Earth’s craziest forms of mimicry, researchers have discovered a new species of rove beetle that grows a termite puppet on its back to fool real termites into feeding it. The replica is so precise, it even mirrors the termites’ distinct body segments and has three pairs of pseudoappendages that resemble antennae and legs.

Rove beetles (family Staphylinidae) are already infamous in the animal kingdom as masters of disguise. Some, for example, have evolved to look like army ants, allowing the beetles to march alongside them and feed on their eggs and young.

The new beetle species (Austrospirachtha carrijoi)—found beneath the soil in Australia’s Northern Territory—emulates a termite by enlarging its abdomen, a phenomenon known as physogastry. Evolution has reshaped this body part into a highly realistic replica of a termite (as seen above), head and all, which rides on top of the rest of the beetle’s body. The beetle’s real, much smaller head peeks out from beneath its termite disguise, the authors report this month in the journal Zootaxa.

The termite “puppet” may help the beetle evade detection—though termites are blind, they sense one another through touch. The beetle may also absorb unique chemicals called cuticular hydrocarbons from the termites or produce similar compounds in order to enhance the perception that it is a termite as well.

Because A. carrijoi’s mouth parts are tiny, the authors think it begs food from its hosts rather than eating eggs or larvae. Worker termites feed other castes digested food in a process called trophallaxis. This adaptation has obvious advantages to the beetle. Once it is inside the nest, it can relax and spend the rest of its life living off of termite room service.