The Black Corsair, Terror of the Leaves

by Joseph DeSisto

The word corsair originates from the old French word corsaire, used to refer to the Barbary pirates of North Africa from the 16th to 19th centuries. The term later referred to pirates or privateers in general. Today we seldom speak of corsairs — the word has fallen out of use except among entomologists, who use it to refer to a particular subfamily of assassin bugs, the Peiratinae.

These corsairs certainly live up to their name. Just as the Barbary pirates terrorized the Mediterranean, the corsairs are just about every insects nightmare. Like all assassins they are ambush predators, waiting for the perfect moment to strike out and inject acids and enzymes into their prey. The victim is liquefied alive, and then sucked dry until only the crumpled husk of an insect remains.

Below is my personal favorite, the black corsair (Melanolestes picipes). Note the general bad-assery:

The black corsair. Photo by Ilona L., licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

The black corsair. Photo by Ilona L., licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

Some fun facts about black corsairs:

1) Females hiss during mating. By hiss I really mean stridulate, since they rub their mouthparts together to make the raspy sound (Moore 1961). What message this conveys to the male about his performance — positive or negative — I won’t speculate.

2) They don’t all have wings. With few exceptions (i.e., mayflies) insects don’t develop wings until they become adults. In the case of the black corsair, though, many females reach adulthood without developing wings. Since assassins are ambush predators, they don’t need to do much flying except to find mates. The males get that job.

3) They come in red. Juveniles don’t have fully developed wings, and the exposed abdomen is often reddish until adulthood. In some cases the red is never lost, and the red adults used to be considered a separate species, Melanolestes abdominalis. We now know that the two forms belong to one highly variable species (McPherson et al. 1991).

A black corsair, with the reddish abdomen retained into adulthood. Photo by Mike Quinn, TexasEnto.net, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

A black corsair, with the reddish abdomen retained into adulthood. Photo by Mike Quinn, TexasEnto.net, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

Like all assassin bugs, the black corsair belongs to the insect order Hemiptera, which consists mostly of peaceful herbivores such as stink bugs and aphids. All hemipterans have tube-shaped mouthparts and must injest their food in liquid form. But while plant-feeders have straw-shaped mouths they use to harvest sap, assassins and other predatory forms have mouths shaped like scimitars — i.e., something a pirate might use. One look at a a corsair and you know you are looking at an insect that kills other insects:

The head and prey killing device of the black corsair, Melanolestes picipes. Photo by Brigette Zacharczenko, used with permission.

The head and prey killing device of the black corsair. Photo by Brigette Zacharczenko, used with permission.

Yeah. Not something you want to pick up.

I collected the specimen above in Sumter National Forest, in South Carolina, alongside a ton of other animals with the potential to ruin my day: ticks, scorpions, really big centipedes … enough for a series, really. We’ll see.

Some housekeeping notes. First, I want to thank Brigette Zacharczenko, a PhD student at UConn. She helped me use the Macropod, a very fancy camera by Macroscopic Solutions, to take the picture above. As it happens, she too has a website/blog which features insects and especially caterpillars. You can find that here.

Second, I recently had an article published in Entomology Today, the blog/news site of the Entomological Society of America. It’s about the Migratory Dragonfly Project and how citizen scientists can get involved. You can read that here.

Cited:

McPherson, J. E., S. L. Keffer, and S. J. Taylor. 1991. Taxonomic status of Melanolestes picipes and M. abdominalis (Heteroptera: Reduviidae). Florida Entomologist 74(3): 396-403.

Moore, T. E. 1961. Audiospectrographic analysis of sounds of Hemiptera and Homoptera. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 54(2): 273-291.

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