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Planet Earth

A Coat of Many Corpses

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The West African assassin bug has a unique fashion instinct. In its nymph stage, the rapacious critter covers itself with a dust coat adorned with dead ants, termites, and flies whose bodies it has sucked dry. Miriam Brandt, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Regensburg in Germany, believes this sartorial splendor acts as the equivalent of a detachable lizard's tail.

Brandt and Dieter Mahsberg of the University of Würzburg conducted an insect dinner party in which they presented three sorts of live assassin bugs—naked, dust-coat-only, and fully clothed—to the creature's natural predators: spiders, geckos, and centipedes. The bugs' macabre "backpack" seemed to confuse the attackers. A spider, for instance, would bite and let go, perceiving only a stack of insect husks. "If it did hold on, the jerk it exerted ripped the backpack off the nymph's back, leaving the predator occupied with the pile of debris it had captured, thereby giving the bug the opportunity to escape," says Brandt.

rd_coat.jpg

There's a bug underneath. Really.Photograph courtesy of Miriam Brandt.

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