Agriculture is rightly recognized as one of the turning points in human history. The practice of tending to specific animals and plants to maintain and even increase their utility helped drive humans into city-building and, from there, into the large, complex, settled societies we know today. Humans, however, are not the only animals that have discovered agriculture. Everything from snails to elephants has some ability to foster and guide the evolution of another creature for its own use. Agriculture, it turns out, is a subset of ecosystem engineering, and a lot of creatures are engineers.
Mantises are some of the most distinctive insects, with their elongated bodies and grasping claws. They are big, a bit clumsy, and curiously human, with their large eyes and partially erect posture. They’re famous for a much-exaggerated quirk of their mating behavior, in which females eat males after mating, and also for the multitude of highly camouflaged versions found among them, looking like grass, flowers, leave, and more.
The thing is, mantises are not alone.
My name is Alyssa and I currently have head lice.
This year is my last year teaching the Animal Form and Function dissection lab at the University of Ottawa. I’ve done a lot for this lab over the years, and I want to do one more thing.
The course is a survey through the animal kingdom with a particular emphasis on body plans. A creature’s “Bauplan” (in the original German) is the basic structure of its body, rid of peculiarities that disguise the similarity between the animal and its relatives. The more deeply these plans are explored, the more the ancient relationships and divergences that link animals to the entire kingdom’s common ancestor can be illuminated. Animal phyla, if the term still has any value, are often best understood as groups united by sharing a bauplan that distinguishes them from other groups, and these structures are important for an aspiring student of animal anatomy to recognize.
And then we arrive at the insects.
My university has a very limited array of specialized high-level zoology courses. There are no high-level electives about the intricacies of lampshells or even mollusks at the University of Ottawa. There are courses about various groups of vertebrates, and about unusual microbes like the microsporidia that get a lot of attention for other reasons. We do have an entomology course, because insects are that fundamental and that numerous.
Humans talk a mean game about being the dominant organism on planet Earth, and it’s not an unreasonable assertion. Humans are on a short list of species found on all continents (no matter how those continents are parsed) and most of the other contenders are animals like cattle whose ecology is intimately entangled with ours. If we compare humans (or even primates at large, to be honest) with insects, though…there are millions of them for every one of us, and they are omnipresent. Insects are defining features of every ecology except for the oceans, and a few visit even there. As noted earlier, the insects have more species to their name than any other taxonomically similar group of organisms.
So it’s no surprise that some very interesting beasties lurk in this massive assemblage.