The indestructible insect: Velvet ants from across the United States avoid predation by representatives from all major tetrapod clades (2018), Gall et al., Ecology & Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.4123
Image credit: Adam Hasik, image cropped
Predation is a selective force that everyone is familiar with. One organism (the predator) kills and consumes another (the prey), and there is usually little nuance to the outcome of this interaction. The prey either escapes and survives, or it is killed and eaten. Due to this extreme pressure, prey organisms have evolved a remarkable array of defensive abilities and behaviors to attempt to reduce predation. Some colorful examples include the pufferfish and its ability to greatly increases its size, the octopus and its ink, or the hilarious (yet effective) behavior whereby the killdeer (a small bird here in North America) will make a lot of noise and fly a short distance before pretending its wing is broken in order to distract a predator from its offspring.
One animal that possesses a suite of such defensive abilities is the velvet ant (Dasymutilla spp.). Despite their name, velvet ants are a group of parasitoid wasps covered in a fine layer of setae (the velvet) where the females are wingless and look like ants. Because these females spend most of their time searching for ground-nesting insects to lay their eggs on/in and cannot fly, one might expect that these insects are particularly vulnerable to predators. But what’s really cool about these insects is just how many defenses that they have to ward off predators. First and foremost, they are brightly colored (just LOOK at that thing, nothing about that insect says “eat me”), which is usually enough of a warning in the natural world. Beyond their coloration, females also possess a venomous sting that is reputed to be one of the most painful stings in the world (see Did You Know?). I mean, that velvet ant in the featured image is colloquially known as the “cow killer” because of its painful sting. Velvet ants also possess a remarkably thick exoskeleton that is difficult to crush, and because it is rounded bites and stings tend to glance off of the abdomen. Today’s authors sought to understand just how effective all of these defenses were for reducing predation.Read more