Thursday, 12 April 2012

Soldier Bugs Protect Colony From Threats Large and Small

The insects often called thunderbugs include soldiers that use their lengthy "arms" to squeeze the life out of invading rivals. New research suggests these soldiers also defend against much tinier invaders: They produce a compound that kills off some microbes.

"In a lot of other insect species as well, the soldiers are actually the ones who protect against those macroscopic and microscopic species," said Holly Caravan, of Memorial University of Newfoundland,  Canada, who studied the thunderbugs, the tiny flying insects also known as thrips.

Caravan and her colleagues focused on a species, Kladothrips intermedius, reaching just 0.08 inches (2 millimeters) long, that build their homes inside of plants in southern Australia. Each colony lives in a a gall, a generic name for a bulbous growth on a plant, set up by a single thrips.

This colony creator gives rise to two "castes" of offspring: those that go out and create their own gall (they are called dispersers) and those that defend the existing gall (known as soldiers). The soldier thrips are very different in shape than the dispersers, having much smaller wings since they don't need to fly far. They also have extra-long arms to squeeze the life out of invaders trying to make their way into the gall.

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