Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Take a Trip to a Zoo of Insects

Many insects are known by common names that may be based on behavior or refer to some obvious characteristic of the insect. Some of these names are suggestive of other animals — animals that are common in zoos.

There are insects called water scorpions. They are among a group of insects that live in water but must come to the surface for air. Water scorpions possess an appendage at the rear that functions as a tube through which air is drawn. They are also predators and catch their prey with grasping front legs. Grasping front legs and a rear appendage are characteristics of real scorpions, thus the name.

Another insect is named after the scorpion. The scorpion fly gets its name because of an abdomen that resembles that of a scorpion. It actually curls the tip of its abdomen over its back, but unlike its namesake, the scorpion fly can't sting!

There are also lions and tigers in the insect world, including a group of moths known as tiger moths. These moths get their name because many have stripes and are sometimes orange colored like real tigers. And there is the tiger swallowtail butterfly that just happens to be yellow and black striped.

The tiger also lends its name to a group of beetles. The tiger beetles are vicious predators. They run down and tear to shreds their prey, sort of like real tigers.

Insect lions include the aphis-lion and the ant lion. These insects are of the order Neuroptera and are named after the predatory lion because the immatures of both feed on other insects as predators. The aphis-lion is an immature lacewing and it, like the adult, feeds on aphids. The ant lion turns out to be a dobson fly, but before it becomes an adult it lives in funnel-shaped holes in the sand, where it captures and devours insects unfortunate enough to fall into the trap.

There are even insect pachyderms, elephants and rhinoceros. Not surprisingly, these insects include some of the largest in North America and the world. Elephant beetle males don't have horns on their heads, but they do have horn-like structures from a structure behind the head. Rhinoceros beetle males have a single horn that protrudes upright from the head, just like a real rhino.

Some insects have bird names. Swallowtails are well-known birds and butterflies. The butterfly gets its name from the long extension from the hind wing that is swallowlike. One is called the zebra swallowtail because it is black with white stripes. Hawk moths get their names because they have long narrow wings and fly very fast. In the grasshopper family is an insect known as the grouse locust, probably because it is mottled brown and blends in with the ground on which it sits.

There are all kinds of insects, and many of them remind us of other animals, such as elephants and lions and tigers, oh my!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann