Arxiu d'etiquetes: disease vectors

Venomous and poisonous arthropods: what makes them different?

After talking about venomous mammals, fishes and lizards, ‘All you need is Biology’ brings you this post about venomous and poisonous arthropods. We will try to explain you what makes them different and which arthropods produce some kind of toxic substance (and how they do it). It will probably surprise you!

Venomous vs poisonous animals

Although some people normally use these words interchangeably, they really mean the same? The answer is NO.

A venomous animal develops specialized organs or elements (such as fangs, teeth or stings) to actively inoculate venom inside the body of their victim as an offensive or defensive mechanism. On the other hand, a poisonous animal does not develop these type of organs, but specialized tissues or glands that produce toxins that are released passively as a defensive system; others acquire these substances from their diet. Sometimes, the toxin is not produced in any specific organ, but integrated within body tissues as a defense against predation.

Despite these differences, once in the body venoms and toxins can cause similar damage, which depends on their mode of action, the assimilated amount and the victim’s features. In humans, effects caused by these substances range from irritation, inflammation or redness to severe systemic damage in cases of powerful poisons.

Venomous and poisonous arthropods


Arachnids (subphylum Cheliceromorpha) include two of the better known venomous arthropods: spiders and scorpions. Both groups develop specialized organs to inoculate venomous substances which use either to hunt and defend themselves against predators or potential enemies.

  • Spiders

The specialized organs for venom inoculation in spiders are the chelicerae, a pair of preoral appendices typical of Cheliceromorpha which they use to grab the food. Spiders’ chelicerae, which are fang-shaped, are related to basal venom glands. These fangs have an internal duct that finish in a terminal opening through which venom is released and injected inside victims’ bodies like a hypodermic needle.

Spiders have the most evolved form of chelicerae: jackknife chelicerae. The two parts of the chelicerae come together like a folding knife, and when threatening to attack, the spiders rise the chelicerae and open the angle of the fangs.

Spider’s chelicerae. Public domain image (CC0) obtained from pixabay.

Some of the most dangerous spiders for humans are the Australian funnel-web spiders (genera Atrax, Hadronyche and Illawarra). Their venom is toxic to sodium channels, which results in the massive release of neurotransmitters.

“Funnel web spider” of the species Hadronyche cerberea. Have you noticed the drop of venom in its chelicer?. Picture by Alan Couch on Flickr (CC 2.0).
  • Scorpions

The most distal part of the scorpion tail, the telson (an additional segment found in several arthropods), has become a venomous organ that ends in a stinger. Like chelicerae in spiders, telson in scorpions is related to venom glands that contain toxic substances.

Scorpion of the species Centruroides vittatus, common in the middle of EUA and in the north of Mexico. In red, telson ended in a sting. Public domain image (CC0).

Scorpion venom is usually rich in neurotoxins that alter both the central and the peripheral nervous system of the victim by dissociating the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. In humans, the effects of their sting vary from intense local pain (with minor inflammation) to cardiac arrhythmias and acute pulmonary edema, like in the Indian species Hottentotta tamulus, which is considered one of the most venomous scorpions in the world.

BE CAREFUL! Neither all arachnids nor related groups are venomous; e. g. harvestmen, camel spiders and whip spiders (Amblypygi) ARE NOT venomous.

From left to right: harvestman (Daniel Jolivet on Flickr, CC 2 .0), camel spider (CC 3.0) and whip spider (Geoff Gallice on Flickr).


The subphylum Myriapoda is divided in two classes: Diplopoda (millipedes) and Chilopoda (centipedes), and both produce toxic substances.

  • Millipedes

Millipedes, which have an elongated body composed of a lot of segments with two pairs of legs (rarely just one pair), are detritivores and inoffensive. However, they release toxins (alkaloids, benzoquinones, phenols) as a defensive mechanism to prevent predation. Some of these released substances are caustic and can burn the exoskeleton of other arthropods or cause skin and mucous inflammation in bigger animals.

Millipede toxins are produced inside repugnatorial or odoriferous glands and then excreted through small micropores located at both sides of the body when being crushed or feeling threatened.

At the first sight, micropores are difficult to see. Picture by Thomas Shahan on Flickr (CC 2.0).

TRIVIA: black lemurs from Madagascar (Eulemur macaco) grab and bite millipedes to stimulate their secretions, and then rub them all over their body. It is thought that lemurs cover themselves on millipede’s toxins since these work as insect repellent.

If you want to learn some more about this behaviour, don’t miss the following video. We recommend you to stay until the end…the final result will probably surprise you!

  • Centipedes

Centipedes also have a segmented body like millipedes; however, each segment has just a pair of legs. While millipedes are detritivores, centipedes are carnivorous arthropods that hunt their preys actively. To do so, they have developed two large forcipules originated from the first pair of legs which can inject venom contained in glands in the trunk of the animal. They also bite when feeling threatened.

Forcipules of Scolopendra cingulata, by Eran Finkle (CC 3.0).

The Scolopendra genus causes the most severe injuries. However, despite causing an intense pain when stinging, almost all envenomations caused by centipedes spontaneously resolve without complications.


Despite their diversity, there exist just a few cases of venomous/poisonous insects (class Insecta).

  • Beetles

Some beetle families (Coleoptera order), such as Meloidae, Oedemeridae and Staphylinidae (Paederus and Paederidus genera) contain toxins within their hemolymph which are released by compression as a defensive strategy against predators. These substances cause skin burns, redness and inflammation in humans.

Sptaphylinidae of the species Paederus littoralis, from Spain, France and Italy. Picture by Alvesgaspar (CC 4.0).

Meloidae and Oedemeridae hemolymph contain cantharidine, while the one of Paederus and Paederidus contains pederine, a substance that is exclusive of females of these beetles and of certain marine sponges, and which is thought to be produced by symbiont bacteria.

  • Bugs

Although some bugs (suborder Heteroptera) are better known for being disease vectors, they also cause different types of skin injuries in humans due to the release of caustic and inflammatory substances as a defense when being compressed (e. g. Pentatomidae family) or by the injection of salivary enzymes that are normally used to kill and dissolve preys (e. g. Belostomatidae family).

Belostomatidae. Public domain image (CC0).
  • Hymenopterans

Most of wasps, bees and ants (Hymenoptera order) produce toxins as a defensive mechanism. In most of those cases, females develop a stinger at the end of the abdomen resulting from the evolution of the ovipositor (Aculeata infraorder); however, there are also some groups that defend themselves by biting.

Ants (Formicidae family) usually attack by biting, but some species, such as those in the group of the fire ants (Solenopsis spp.) and the bullet ants (Paraponera spp., Dinoponera spp.), also have stingers like bees and wasps. Formic acid probably is the best-known toxin produced by ants, but is unique to the Formicinae subfamily; fire ants, for example, inject piperidine alkaloids. The sting of the bullet ants, which are distributed throughout center and south America, is considered the most painful sting for humans caused by an insect according to the Schmidt Index (which considers it to be as painful as a gunshot!).

Red ant of the species Solenopsis invicta (left, public domain image (CC0)) and bullet ant of the species Paraponera clavata (right, April Nobile / © / CC BY-SA 3.0).

Females of most of bees and wasps within the Aculeata group develop an abdominal stinger. Their venom is usually rich in phospholipases, producing effects ranging from local inflammation to severe anaphylactic reactions (when suffering of hypersensibility or after being attacked by thousands of insects, as it has happened several times with the killer bee in America). The sting of the tarantula hawk (Pepsis formosa) from Mexico and southern USA, is considered the second most painful after the one of the bullet ant.

Pepsis formosa, a tarantula hawk. Public domain image (CC0).
  • Butterflies and moths

A lot of butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera order) produce toxins either during their larval stages, adulthood or both as a defensive mechanism against predation.

Sometimes, caterpillars are covered by urticant bristles or hairs that cause skin lesions (erucism), as in the case of the pine processionary (Thaumetopoea pityocampa), a harmful plague for pines which is very spread in southern Europe and America.

Pine processionary caterpillar nest, by John H. Ghent (CC 3.0).

On the other hand, adults of some species, like those of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and Zygaena spp., both showing flashy colors (aposematism, a type of animal mimicry), develop toxins within their corporal tissues to prevent predation. The monarch butterfly obtains these substances by feeding on toxic plants of the Asclepias genus.

Zygaena transalpina, by gailhampshire (CC 2.0).

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Have you found this information interesting? Do you know any other venomous or poisonous arthropod? Feel free to leave your comments below!


The main image is of public domain (CC0) and was downloaded from Pixabay.

Insects and microorganisms symbiosis: the endosymbionts

Symbiotic relationships are an important motor for organisms’ diversification and evolution. The relationships insects have established with some endosymbiotic microorganisms (that is, those inhabiting the inner of their bodies) have provided them of a lot of surprising physiological and ecological adaptations. 

The value of the relationship between insects and their endosymbionts

The major cause for insects’ evolutive and adaptive success is their potential to stablish beneficial relationships with other life beings and, especially, with those microorganisms inhabiting their insides: the endosymbionts.

Some years ago, it was considered that the greatest contribution of endosymbiotic microorganisms to the physiology of insects was their role in feeding habits, which would explain, at least in part, the diversity of diets among insects. However, it has been shown that endosymbionts affect many other physiological traits.

Types of endosymbiosis in insects

Endosymbiotic microorganisms can be found inside the gut, in the spaces between cells and inside cells.

Generally, the more internal the endosymbiotic microorganisms are within the host’s body, the closer their relationship with the insect is. The four most common types of endosymbiosis in insects are explained below, from the most external and least close relationship to the most internal and closest one.

Gut microbes

Gut microbiota of insects is composed both of prokaryotes (unicellular, without nucleus, like bacteria and archaea) and eukaryotes (unicellular or pluricellular, with nucleus, like protozoans) that live outside the gut cells. They usually inhabit the hind part of insect’s gut (hindgut), either moving freely in its lumen or remaining attached to its walls. In some phytophagous insects, likes termites and cockroaches, the hindgut is a chamber without oxygen (anaerobic) where fermentation of cellulose and other complex sugars takes place.


Worker termite gut; the green part corresponds to the hindgut without oxygen. Figure belonging to the following paper: Brune, A. (2014). Symbiotic digestion of lignocellulose in termite guts. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 12(3), 168-180.

In termites, this anaerobic chamber contains facultative anaerobic prokaryotes (they can develop either with or without oxygen) and obligate anaerobic prokaryotes (they can only develop without oxygen), such as spirochetes and methanogens, which aid in digestion. In addition, in some worker termites, this chamber also contains protozoans that play a major role in the digestion of wood cellulose (Have you ever seen a piece of furniture pierced by termites?).

Unlike other endosymbionts, gut microbes are horizontally transmitted between insects; that is, insects don’t inherit gut microbes from their parents, but they should acquire them throughout their lives. In termites, acquisition of gut microbes takes place through a process called trophallaxis: the workers, which are the only able to feed by themselves, digest the food and transmit the resulting product mixed with gut microorganisms to the rest of the colony members through their mouthparts.

Trophollaxis. Picture by Shutterstock.

Moreover, microorganisms are removed during molting processes, so termites (and other insects performing trophollaxis) can acquire them again through trophollaxis.


Parasites that live and/or develop inside an organism are known as endoparasites. They are also horizontally transmitted between insects.

Insects stablish fairly more relationships with pluricellular endoparasites than with microorganisms, being the pluricellular endoparasites the most harmful for insects in general terms; these are the cases of insect parasitoids (of which we talked in this post) and nematodes (able to transmit deathful bacteria to insects).

The most relevant endoparasitic relationship between insects and microorganisms, and the only one we are going to explain here, are vectors: the insect (or vector) serve as a container to the parasite until it reaches the definitive host. Parasites transported by vector usually are pathogenic protozoans harmful to vertebrates, like Trypanosoma (Chagas disease), Leishmania (leishmaniosis) or Plasmodium (Malaria).

Mosquito of the genus Anopheles, the major vector of the protozoan causing malaria worldwide: Plasmodium. Public domain image.

Extracellular and intracellular symbiosis

Unlike gut microbes and endoparasites, extracellular and intracellular endosymbionts are vertically transmitted generation after generation; that is, the insect inherits them from its parents

  • Extracellular endosymbionts

Extracellular endosymbionts, which can be both prokaryotes and eukaryotes, can be found in different organs of the body (even in the intestine along with the gut microbes). In any case, they never penetrate inside the cells. However, some species can be found outside and inside cells.

Since many extracellular microorganisms can also be intracellular, the possibility that they are found, in an evolutionary sense, in a transition stage between gut microbes and intracellular endosymbionts has been discussed.

An interesting case of extracellular endosymbiosis takes place in some species of aphids of the tribe Cerataphidini. Generally, aphids stablish a close relationship with an intracellular endosymbiont bacteria (Buchnera), but in some species of the aforementioned tribe these bacteria are substituted by extracellular unicellular yeast-like fungi (YLS or ‘yeast-like symbiont’) which inhabit the cavities between organs and inside different adipose bodies. Like Buchnera in the rest of aphids, YLS would play a key role on aphid feeding habits, participating in the production of essential nutrients.

Ceratovacuna nekoashi (Cerataphidini). Link (CC 2.5)

It is suggested that YLS would have evolved from an entomopathogenic fungus (that is, harmful to insects) whose lineage would later have derived into beneficial endosymbiotic organisms.

  • Intracellular endosymbionts

It is considered that at least 70% of insects has endosymbiotic microorganisms inside its cells. There exist two types of intracellular endosymbionts:

Mycetocyte symbionts or Blochmann bodies

Bacteriocytes or mycetocytes are specialized adipose cells containing endosymbionts which can be found in some groups of insects. These cells are vertically transmitted to the offspring and gathered together forming organs known as mycetomes o bacteriomes.

Blochmann bodies, or simply the endosymbionts inside mycetomes, are related to three groups of insects: Blattaria (cockroaches), some groups of heteropterans within Homoptera (cicadas, rust flies, aphids, etc.) and Curculionidae (curculionid beetles).

Buchnera aphidicola inside a mycetome of the aphid Acyrthosiphon pisum. The central element is the mycetome’s nucleus. Buchnera cells, which are round, are located packed in the citoplasm of the mycetome. Picture by J. White y N. Moran, University of Arizona (CC 2.5).

The most well studied case is the relationship between Buchnera and aphids. This intracellular bacterium recycles the uric acid and some other nitrogenous wastes produced by the aphid in order to produce the amino acid glutamine, which is then used by this same endosymbiont to produce other essential amino acids necessary for the aphid to develop. It is also considered that Buchnera produces vitamin B2 (riboflavin). This can explain why aphids have such a high reproductive rate and a big evolutive success despite having a diet rich in carbohydrates (which they obtain from plant’s sap) and poor in nitrogenous compounds.

It has been confirmed that Buchnera cells decrease in number when nutrients are scarce. This suggests that aphids use Buchnera cells as an alternative food source in difficult situations. So, aphids take more advantages from this relationship than Buchnera.

Guest endosymbionts

In this case, the guest (endosymbiont) alters some physiological traits of the insect to obtain some advantage.

Guest endosymbionts usually affect the sex ratio of insects (proportion of males and females in a population) as well as other reproductive traits. Guest endosymbionts that alter the sex ratio are known as sex-ratio distorters. Some guest microbes inhabiting the cytoplasm of insect’s cells are vertically transmitted to the offspring through ovules, so they need a higher proportion of female insects to guarantee their own perpetuity. To alter this proportion, they use different methods: male killing, induction of parthenogenesis, feminization or cytoplasm incompatibility, for which they usually induce changes at the genetic level.

One of the most well-studied cases is Wolbachia, an intracellular bacterium capable to induce a sex-ratio bias through almost every of the aforementioned methods.

Phenotypes resulting from insects infected with Wolbachia. Figure belonging to the following paper: Werren, J. H., Baldo, L. & Clark, M. E. 2008. Wolbachia: master manipulators of invertebrate biology. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 6(10), 741-751.

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Do you know any other relationship between microbes and insects? Leave your comments below!


  • Bourtzis K. Miller T. A. (2003). Insect Symbiosis. CRC Press.
  • Douglas, A.E. (1998). Nutritional interactions in insect-microbial symbioses: Aphids and their symbiotic bacteria Buchnera. Annual Review of Entomology, 43: 17–38.
  • Vega F.E., Blackwell M. (2005). Insect-Fungal Associations: Ecology and Evolution. Oxford University Press, USA.

The cover image is a montage made by the author from two images: 1) bacterium vector (by Flaticon from and 2) termite vector (obtained from