APRIL
2007

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

4-12-07

Kung Fu Fighting -- Insect Style

One type of Oriental martial arts is known by the Chinese name "kung fu." Kung fu fighting, it seems, began with the monks of the Shaolin monastery. Around 610, the monks used such fighting techniques to ward off bandits. Certainly by the 16th-century, the monks of Shaolin were learning and practicing martial arts known today as kung fu.

By the mid 1970s, a kung fu craze was running wild in the United States. Martial arts films had existed in the Orient for some time, but in 1973 kung fu martial arts appeared on the small screen in the United States. Produced by Warner Brothers, the television series was called "Kung Fu." David Carradine starred as Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk who had fled to the United States. Caine used his kung fu skills to fight his way across the Wild American Old West in search of his half brother.

In 1973, Bruce Lee starred in "Enter the Dragon," the first kung fu film produced by a Hollywood studio. This film is probably one of the most important martial arts films ever made.

"Kung Fu Fighting," a song performed by Carl Douglas, was released in 1974. It topped the charts in both Britain and the United States. Even if you weren't around in the 1970s and don't listen to oldies radio, you might still recognize the song. It recently was featured in an advertisement. The GEICO gecko sings "Kung Fu Fighting" while on a road trip with several human companions.

Kung Fu-type fighting is common among insects. Like the martial arts, insect battles are fought without weapons. It's legs, mouths and wings in this appendage-to-appendage combat. Take, for instance, crickets. In battles for territory, male crickets kick, bite, bluff and head-butt opponents into submission.

Cricket battles sometimes leave combatants without antennae or legs. Such appendages get chewed off during fights. Apparently, all is fair in love and cricket fights! Come to think of it, cricket fights are all about love and attracting the opposite sex.

Crickets aren't the only insects that engage in combat for the purpose of attracting mates. Dragonfly males establish a territory and physically contest other dragonfly males that enter the restricted area. Such aerial battles involve midair collisions and wing thrashing between the two until one combatant, usually the intruder, exits the territory.

Males of many species of beetles also battle with each other over territory and mates. Encounters among large insects, such as the goliath or rhinoceros beetles, are quite spectacular. When two of these two-ounce insect behemoths meet head-to-head on a branch, a battle ensues. With heads down the beetles bulldoze each other like, well like bulls. Sometimes they grapple with each other using horns and mouthparts to get a grip. If one beetle manages to lift its opponent off the branch, the hapless victim is heaved earthward like a log tossed by a Scottish Highland Games caber thrower.

Most insect battles end with the vanquished loser sulking away, nursing no more than a broken antennae or missing leg. But some encounters among insects are far more sinister. This is especially true among predatory insects. For instance, in an ultimate case of sibling rivalry, newly hatched praying mantids try to turn a brother or sister into their first meal.

Lacewing larvae will try to consume the unhatched eggs deposited by their mother. In this case, the mother lacewing prevents such sibling abuse by placing the egg on a slender stalk. The stalk positions the egg beyond the reach of the jaws of these little predators.

Sibling rivalry is sometimes quite intense among royal families. So it is in the honey bees. When queens are produced, the first one hatched runs around the colony and stings her sisters to death before they emerge from their wax-covered queen cells. If two queens happen to emerge, they fight until one stings the other to death. That is kung fu fighting to the max!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox