Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Top 5 Insect Super Powers

Hey ya'll

In the first part of "Super Powered Insects", I talked about comic books characters that were inspired by the wonders of the entomological world! In the real world, however, many insects are similarly known to possess unique and amazing super-power like abilities! The following are a list of the top 5 insect super powers that I could come up with. 

1. Super Strength! 

A staple in any superhero comic universe: what would DC comics be without Superman, Marvel without The Incredible Hulk, and the natural world without... the industrious ant? Ants are one of the strongest creatures in the animal kingdom, capable of lifting several times their own body weight!!! The actual degree of super-strength varies between ant species, but on average an individual ant can lift anywhere between 10 - 50 times its total body weight. They can even do this upside down, while clinging on seemingly smooth glass-like surfaces! That's pretty amazing. Now it may seem surprising that such a small animal is capable of such feats of strength but the reason behind it all boils down to good old fashion physics and the concept of scaling. Because of their relatively small sizes, ants do not have much body mass. In comparison with this body mass, however, a large proportion of the ant's body is made up of small insect-muscles. Proportionately speaking this gives them the ability to lift and manipulate objects that are much larger and many times heavier than their own body weight. And its not just ants, but insects in general! Honey bees, for instance, have been observed to be able to lift up to 80 percent of their body weight in FLIGHT! More, when they're on the ground. It is not an absolute rule but a general one that the bigger the animals get (and the larger their body mass is) their ability to lift objects of equal to, or heavier than their own weight greatly decreases. Take elephants for example. Elephants can lift up to many tons but did you know they are quite incapable of lifting their own body weight? I guess this is one of those instances where small size, works to their advantage. 

2. Flight

Another fairly common staple power in comic books, flight is an ability most adult insects possess. These guys were virtually the first living things in the world to evolve the ability and subsequently, may be said to be one of the most accomplished as well. Of all the fliers of the insect world, however, it is arguable that none are perhaps as accomplished as the dragonfly! Dragonflies have been around for millions of years, and aside from a drastic decrease in size, have not seemed to have changed very much from their prehistoric ancestors. Consequently, they've also had ample time to perfect their flying skills making them quite literally, the masters of the air. Most dragonflies flap their wings at only 30 beats per second (this is very slow, in comparison to most insects like bees who flap their wings at about 300 times a second) but are still able to complete aerial feats of stunning magnitude! They are accomplished fliers, reaching speeds of up to 58 kilometers per hour (that's about 36 miles) and are more than capable of making sharp turns, sudden dives, and even flying backwards! The reason dragonflies can do this is because of their unique anatomy that enable them to use all four of their wings independently. When used in conjunction with their excellent vision, the dragonfly's mastery of flight makes it an excellent and accurate predator, capable of snatching insects up in mid-flight. 

3. Webbing

Okay, so this is not exactly your typical super power! But what would this post be without a reference to spider man! Spider silk is one of the strongest organic substances known to man! The drag like silk of many spider webs (designed to stop flying insects in mid-flight) has often been equated to having the tensile strength of a high grade allow steel filament of the same diameter (purportedly a proportionately spun silken web would even have the strength to arrest a commercial airplane in mid-flight). And while spiders are arachnids and so, not insects (no need to get into a twist, I did not forget that fact!) they are not the only animals capable of producing webbing! The larvae of many insects, perhaps most notably those of butterflies and moths, are quite capable of excreting a similarly fibrous substance that is also known as silk. The silk produced by silkworms (bombyx mori) for instance are one of the strongest natural fibers known to man! In fact, silk garments dating back to 1782 was discovered in relatively durable condition in a wreck expedition in 1840! Silk. is also naturally resistant to most mineral acids. 

4. Radioresistance

Man destroys man. Insects inherit the earth.
I am sure that most of us are no stranger to the urban legend that cockroaches are the only animals capable of surviving a nuclear blast. Now, while it might more accurately be said that cockroaches are capable of surviving the aftermath of the blast (the actual blast would probably kill any roach caught in its vicinity by sheer explosive force a lone), I've got even better news for you: same goes to all insects! Now, I am no expert on radiation, but from what I have read up on the subject, this has something to do with the differing nature of vertebrate and invertebrate cells. Radiation is DEADLY to vertebrate animals and this is because our cells are constantly multiplying. Old cells die every second and are replaced by new cells through the process of mitosis (or something). Radiation affects these growing cells by causing them to act and multiply in ways that are different to their original function which would then eventually lead to mutation (the kind that gives people cancer. Not superpowers). Invertebrate cells, however, only multiply rapidly at specific times of the year. Typically, when they are about to undergo the process of molting. This means that of all the insects who survive the initial nuclear blast, those that are not close to the process of molting would be able to withstand the effects of radiation. In fact, some of these insects may be exposed so long, that their bodies begin to adapt to be genetically radioresistant. This positive trait is then passed on to future generations of insects born in the environment creating a strain of radioresistant insects! And this is no longer the stuff of science fiction or urban legend! Naturally radioresistan insects, worms, and plants have already been discovered in places like Minas Gerais, Brazil, that possess naturally high levels of radiation. 

5. Mind Control 

Take me to your leader! 
I saved the best for last. Mind control is often associated with super villains in the comic book genre. Even when heroes actually possess the capacity for it, they use it only sparingly. There is something entirely sinister about invading the thought processes of another creature and bending it against its will. It is therefore with no surprise that this category goes to the super villains of the insect world: the parasitic wasps. Parasitic wasps are quite literally the nightmares of the insect world. Imagine the worst fear you've ever experienced in your life and now multiple it by a hundred. If insects were capable of complex emotional thought, that would be the kind of year you would feel if you were a helpless larvae facing down the nightmarish gaze of a parasitic wasp. Like elegant but deadly assassins, the wasps employ a wide range of methods to subdue, and coerce their prey. The female of the jewel wasp (Ampulex compressa) for instance, preys on the common cockroach. She delivers two stings, both targeted at the roach's ganglion (that's the insect equivalent of a central nervous system). First, she does this to paralyze the front legs of her prey thus reducing mobility and inhibiting resistance. Next, she delivers a second sting at the direct spot of the roach's brain. This causes an immediate behavioral change in the roach. It becomes docile, it becomes compliant, and it will now follow the wasp willingly (as if being led on a leash) to her nest ,where she will proceed to deposit a single egg upon the roach's abdomen. When the egg hatches the larvae will feed on it, eventually living inside of it as an endoparasite. The larvae feeds only on the non-essential organs of the roach thus keeping the host alive until it is matured and ready to emerge as a fully grown wasp. Throughout the entire process, the roach is motionless. It is alive, but does not attempt to escape, seemingly content to rest in the burrow allowing the larvae to eat it alive. For all intents and purposes, the wasp's sting has turned it into a zombie. In another species of wasp, the larvae becomes a parasite of large spiders and upon maturity, will alter the spider's behavior to use its dying strength to spin a silken cocoon to protect the larva during its final stage of development. Talk about creepy. 

So that's it for my list of the top 5 insect super powers! Know any others I might have missed out, or wish to request something be added to the list? Send me a shout on any of my social networking pages (twitter, facebook, email) or leave a note in the comments below! 


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