I continue the hemipteran theme begun in the last post with this photograph I took in South Africa below the Waterberg Range in Northern (now Limpopo) Province. I recognized them as members of the family Reduviidae (assassin bugs), and since to my knowledge species in this family are exclusively predaceous (except for the so-called “kissing bugs” of the mostly Neotropical subfamily Triatominae, large distinctive bugs that feed exclusively on vertebrate blood), I found what I took to be a case of scavenging on a dead millipede to be rather curious. It had rained the previous evening, resulting in a burst of millipede (and insect) activity that night, and this scene was rather commonly encountered the following morning. Of course, appearances can be deceiving, and it turns out that I actually was witnessing predation – and a most unusual case at that. The individuals in this photo represent Ectrichodia crux (millipede assassin bug), a common species in many parts of southern Africa. Although nearly 500 species of assassin bugs are known from the region (Reavell 2000), E. crux is easily recognizable due to its large size (adults measure up to 22 mm in length), stout form, and coloration – shiny black, with a distinctive black cross incised on its dull yellow thorax and with yellow abdominal margins (Picker et al. 2002). The nymphs as well are distinctive – bright red with black wing pads. Clearly, these insects are advertising something.
Ectrichodia crux belongs to the subfamily Ectrichodiinae, noted for their aposematic coloration – often red or yellow and black or metallic blue, and as specialist predators of Diplopoda (Heteropteran Systematics Lab @ UCR). Species in this subfamily are most commonly found in leaf litter, hiding during the day under stones or amongst debris and leaving their shelters at night in search of millipedes (Scholtz and Holm 1985). They are ambush predators that slowly approach their prey before quickly grabbing the millipede and piercing the body with their proboscis, or “beak.” Saliva containing paralytic toxins and cytolytic enzymes is injected into the body of the millipede to subdue the prey and initiate digestion of the body contents, which are then imbibed by the gregariously feeding assassin bugs.
Millipedes employ powerful chemical defenses – primarily benzoquinones and sometimes hydrogen cyanide gas as well, which are discharged from specialized glands along the millipede’s body – to protect themselves from predation. Thus, specialized predation of millipedes is a niche that has been exploited by relatively few predators, and little is known about the mechanisms used for circumventing these defenses. The recently reported millipede specialist, Deltochilum valgum (order Coleoptera, family Scarabaeidae), has been observed killing its prey by violently decapitating and disarticulating it before feeding on the body contents (Larsen et al. 2009, summary here); however, the exact manner by which the beetle avoids or withstands the millipede’s chemical discharges remains unknown. For ambush predators such as Ectrichodia crux and other ectrichodiines, a strategy similar to that described for another millipede specialist predator, larvae of the phengodid beetle, Phengodes laticollis (order Coleoptera, family Phengodidae), might be employed. This species subdues its millipede prey by piercing thinner regions of the millipede’s integument (e.g., intersegmental membranes on the ventral surface) with its hollow sickle-shaped mandibles and apparently injecting gastric fluids that abruptly paralyze the millipede, thereby preventing it from discharging its gland contents (Eisner et al. 1998). These undischarged benzoquinones remain confined to the glands and are prevented from diffusing into the body cavity by the glands’ impervious cuticular lining, thus allowing the phengodid larva to safely imbibe the liquified systemic contents of the immobilized millipede.
Eisner, T., M. Eisner, A. B. Attygalle, M. Deyrup and J. Meinwald. 1998. Rendering the inedible edible: Circumvention of a millipede’s chemical defense by a predaceous beetle larva (Phengodidae). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 95(3):1108–1113.
Larsen, T. H., A. Lopera, A. Forsyth and F. Génier. 2009. From coprophagy to predation: a dung beetle that kills millipedes. Biology Letters DOI:10.1098/rsbl.2008.0654.
Picker, M., C. Griffiths and A. Weaving. 2002. Field Guide to Insects of South Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, 444 pp.
Reavell, P. E. 2000. The assassinbugs (Hemiptera: Reduviidae) of South Africa. http://oldwww.ru.ac.za/academic/departments/zooento/Martin/reduviidae.html#ectrichodiinae.
Scholtz, C. H. and E. Holm (eds.). 1985. Insects of Southern Africa. Butterworths, Durbin, South Africa, 502 pp.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009