Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The insect survival guide

Rowan Hooper, news editor
9780520269125.jpgINSECTS make up 75 per cent of all known animal species. That's about 900,000 of them, with at least 3 million yet to be identified. It's a vast subject area, but veteran entomologist Gilbert Waldbauer brings it to life by exploring insect warfare - the strategies these creatures employ to protect themselves from predators.
There are times when How Not to Be Eaten feels like one long list of examples, but on the whole this is a rich and detailed book that roams across time and space. Waldbauer cites the work of Victorian naturalists alongside recent studies - examples include the way tiger moths generate ultrasonic sounds to repel hunting bats just as butterflies display don't-eat-me colours.
The book describes insects from all over the world, interspersed with anecdotes from Waldbauer's own field trips. Some of my favourites include the spider in South America that catches moths by swinging a bolus of sticky glue on the end of a silk thread - humans are the only other species to use a similar weapon. Then there are the burrowing owls in southern Florida that hunt beetles by scattering lumps of cattle dung as bait. Or the Burnet moth, common in Europe, which secretes deadly hydrogen cyanide stored in its exoskeleton.
Chemical warfare, camouflage, ambush. Sun Tzu could have learned a lot from insects when he wrote The Art of War.

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