FEBRUARY
2007

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

2-22-07

Amazing Races Insect Style

The CBS reality series "The Amazing Race" is in its 11th season. The show has won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality/Competition Program every year since the category was created. This year, the contest will feature an all-star format, pitting past teams against each other.

Movie buffs tuning in "The Amazing Race" will no doubt be reminded of the 1950 film "The Great Race." This film is the tale of an early-1900s auto race from New York to Paris by way of Siberia.

The movie included a number of top stars, such as Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn. The reality show is based on no-name participants, some of whom parlay the activity into fame and fortune. Both the movie and the TV show are designed to provide the viewing audience with entertainment.

Not attention-grabbers like star-studded movies or reality TV programs, but, every year, insects stage amazing races. To the insect participants, such races aren't an opportunity for fame and fortune. But success in the insect versions of the amazing race is more important than notoriety. To the insects, winning this reality show means being a true survivor, the ultimate measure of success in the animal world.

Insects can be a food item on the menu of many animals in this world. Such a relationship is good for the eater but is not good for the insect. So, to avoid becoming a meal for other animals, insects employ a number of defensive tactics. One such tactic is flight.

In general, the ability to fly has allowed many insects to escape the hungry jaws of a predator. But not always. Some of the best insect predators themselves fly. This includes birds and bats. Even other insects, such as dragonflies and robber flies, nab their insect prey while on the wing.

Another approach insects use to avoid becoming a meal is to limit detection by predators. Insects are often colored to blend into the environment. Grasshoppers and katydids look like the plants on which they feed. The color pattern of some moth wings blends in with the bark of the tree where these insects rest during the daylight hours.

Some insects are brightly colored in reds and oranges to send a warning message that they have a bad taste. Other insects resemble bad-tasting insects or insects that can sting, in order to gain a measure of protection. This approach is known as protective coloration. Deceit is not just something found in the TV version of "Survivor."

Another amazing race for insects is one with the seasons. Insects are cold-blooded organisms, meaning that, in general, the rate at which they grow and develop is linked with the temperature of the environment. That means that insects in temperate regions of the world have to complete life cycles while temperatures are adequate. It also means that these insects must biologically be prepared to survive winter when that season arrives.

Strategies for the race with the seasons vary among insect species. Many insects have a single generation per year. These insects emerge from the overwintering stage and complete the cycle back to the overwintering stage. Other species might have two or more such cycles per year. These species, like plants, normally depend on declining hours of sunshine to indicate the approach of winter. Just like in the "Amazing Race" on TV, timing can be everything.

So, how is success evaluated in the insect great races? If it were a vote of viewers, the insects wouldn't win. But, in nature, we don't have a vote. The only measure for success of life on earth is survival of the species! If that is the sole criterion, insects, it appears, are doing well. Make that quite well indeed!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox