Arxiu d'etiquetes: poisonous insects

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

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).

Myriapoda

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.

Insects

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 / © AntWeb.org / 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!

References

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

Anuncis

Migration in danger! The disappearance of the monarch butterfly

Generally, we tend to think of migration as an event exclusively linked to complex organisms (like mammals or birds). But there are always exceptions: the North American populations of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) cover a distance of almost 5000km (more than some complex animals!) in order to reach their hibernation areas, where there can be concentrated thousands of specimens during the winter. Unfortunately, the migration phenomenon depend on many factors that are being damaged by anthropogenic pressure nowadays, so that the future of these populations and also their migration are in danger.

Throughout this article, you will learn some of the most curious biology traits of these organisms, the main causes that could be endangering their populations and the consequences that this would entail.

INTRODUCTION

The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is a butterfly of the Nymphalidae family. It’s also probably one the most well-known butterflies of North America due to its long migration, that their specimens perform from the north of EEUU and Canada to California coast and Mexico, covering a distance of almost 5000km to reach their hibernation areas. It’s, by far, the insect that performs the widest and large migration of all.

Specimen of monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) with its typical color pattern: white, black and orange (Picture by Peter Miller on Flickr, Creative Commons).

Although the North American populations of this species are the most known worldwide due to their migration pattern, there are also monarch butterflies in some Atlantic islands (Canary islands, Azores and Madeira), and sometimes also as eventual migrators that reach the coasts of Western Europe (United Kingdom and Spain). Moreover, they were introduced in New Zealand and Australia during the XIX century.

LIFE CYCLE

The life cycle of this species is very unique. First of all, they’re considered specialist butterflies: they lay their eggs exclusively over plants of the Asclepias genus (also known as milkweeds), and their newborn caterpillars (which are black, white and yellow striped) feed only on these plants. This is a very interesting fact, because the plants of this genus contain cardiac glycosides that are progressively assimilated by the caterpillar tissues, which let them to acquire a disgusting taste that prevents them to be predated. This taste will last during their adult phase.

oruga_mariposa_monarca-algodoncillo
Caterpillar of a monarch butterfly (Picture by Lisa Brown on Flickr, Creative Commons).

Once completed the larva phase, the metamorphosis take place so that the caterpillars become adult butterflies colored in black, white and orange. Both caterpillar and butterfly color patterns carry out a communicative function: it’s a mechanism to warn other animal of their toxicity, fact which is known as aposematic mimicry (this phenomenon is very frequent in a lot of group of animals, even in mammals).

metamorfosis_mariposa_monarca
Phases of the metamorphosis of the monarch butterfly (Picture by Steve Greer Photography).

The adult phase also has some particularities: during the mating season (April-August) some generations of adults are generated, and each of them has a life expectancy of a few weeks, more or less. Then, an awesome event takes place: the butterflies of the generation born at the end of August (when temperatures get low and days became shorter) stops the maturing process of their reproductive organs (phenomenon known as diapause) so they can spend their energy on enlarging their life expectancy to 9 months. This generation is known as “Methuselah generation” due to its longevity.

The increase of their longevity allows this generation to cover the long distance required to reach the hibernation areas during the autumn (Mexico and California coast) and then to come back to the north of America at the end of the winter.

santurario_el_rosario-México
Hundreds of monarch butterflies flying over the place called ‘El Santuario ‘El Rosario” (Mexico) (Picture by Luna sin estrellas on Flickr, Creative Commons).

A ROUND TRIP: THE GREAT MIGRATION

Although the monarch butterfly isn’t only located in North America, there is no evidence nowadays showing that the other populations of monarch butterflies do such a long migration. It’s believed that the fact that only these populations of butterflies go on a trip this long is due to the wide spreading of plants of the Asclepias genus over all North America that took place in the past. Scientists suggest this event allowed the monarch butterflies to spread progressively to the south.

WHICH PLACES DO THE BUTTERFLIES VISIT?

A migration is always a complex process. In this case, the migration to the south is divided into two simultaneous migrations:

  • The east migration: this trip is made by those butterflies that fly from the east of the Rocky Mountains, South of Canada and a big part of USA to the central part of Mexico (90% of all the monarch butterflies located in North America go on this trip).
  • The west migration: this trip is made by those butterflies that fly from the west of the Rocky Mountains, South of Canada and a little part of USA to the California coast (10% of all the monarch butterflies located in North America go on this trip).
Migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly in North America (round trip) (Sources: Monarchwatch.org y Monarch Alert).

Once in the winter habitats, the butterflies plunge into a lethargic state until the next spring, when they become sexually active and start mating before heading again to the north.

It’s a very surprising event seeing all the butterflies sleeping together and covering all the plants and trees of the winter habitats!

Thousands of butterflies gather over the vegetation (Picture by Carlos Adampol Galindo on Flickr, Creative Commons).

PROTECTED AREAS

There exists a lot of protected areas all over the places where the butterflies go through.

One of the most important protected areas is the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (Mexico City), which is considered a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO since 2008.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (Picture by Michelle Tribe on Flickr, Creative Commons).

And why are these butterflies so protected? Besides the fact that their migration pattern is considered an incredible phenomenon, they are pollinators that contribute to the pollination of the wild flora and also of the crops of North America.

THE ‘QUEEN’ IS IN DANGER!

Although there exists a huge effort to protect them, the migratory phenomenon of the North American monarch butterflies is in danger nowadays due to the anthropic pressure, which could also put their populations at risk in the future.

According to the data generated by the WWF, the surface of the winter habitats occupied by these butterflies has decreased 94% in 10 years, going from 27,48 acres occupied in 2003 to only 1,65 acres in 2013. This is the lower value registered in the last 20 years.

Decresing of the surface occupied by the monarch butterflies in the winter habitats (Data form WWF website).

Even though the surface occupied by these organisms has been fluctuating over the years as a part of a natural process, this pronounced decreasing that has taken place in only a few years suggests that butterflies are stopping their annual migrations to the south.

Total occupied area by the butterflies in their winter habitats since 1993 to 2013 (WWF-Telcel-CONANP).

This recession has also been registered in other species of butterflies at different emplacements all over the world, so there must exist some kind of factor in common with the ones affecting the North American monarch butterfly populations.

WHAT COULD BE THE MAIN CAUSES OF THIS RECESSION?

According to the WWF, the main causes that could being putting in danger the migration process of the monarch butterflies are:

  • The reduction of the surface occupied by plants of the Asclepias genus: as we said above, the caterpillars feed exclusively on these plants. But the use of certain herbicides and the changes on the rain patterns could being limiting their dispersal over a big part of North America.
  • Deforestation: cutting down trees massively and the subsequent desertization could being reducing their winter habitats.
  • Extreme climate: the global change, which entails changes in temperature and rain patterns, could being putting at risk the survival of adult butterflies, preventing them to reach the longevity required to carry out complete migrations.

WHICH EFFORTS ARE MADE TO PROTECT THESE POPULATIONS?

As I said above, monarch butterflies are an essential part of the pollination net of North America and also iconic insects, so there exists a big interest on protecting them.

Nowadays, most of the protected areas of North America are making a big effort to improve the quality of their habitats. Among them, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (Mexico) along with the WWF are trying to restore the woods where butterflies hibernate and also promoting a sustainable tourism (enter this link to see more information).

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The case of the monarch butterfly is only one of a huge list of animals in danger. Nowadays, a lot of animals with complex migration patterns and wide spreading areas are suffering similar pressures, mostly of them with an anthropogenic origin. There’s still so much work to do, and it depends on all of us.

REFERENCES

Main picture by Carlos Adampol Galindo on Flickr.

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