Insect Adaptation

Modern termite mound.

Termite colonies are efficient, secure complexes. Rock-hard walls encase the fortress. Each of the thousands or millions of colony members has a specialized role. Any insects that don’t belong in the colony are quickly recognized by differences in their chemical “fingerprint,” or pheromones. These intruders are usually attacked, killed and dumped outside.

Michael Engel, curator of entomology, thinks that 19 million years ago, one insect might have found a way to sneak through the fortress undetected. Named Termitaradus mitnicki, the insect has characteristics that are similar to some flat bugs that exist today. By examining the behavior and abilities of modern-day relatives, Engel can predict how this small insect could get past the security of the termite colony.

Lateral view to the Termitaradus jamaicensis, a modern decendant of Termitaradus mitnicki.
Dorsal view of Termitaradus jamaicensis, a modern decendant of the Termitaradus mitnicki.

Modern relatives of T. mitnicki are masters of disguise, both in physical appearance and likely in their chemical signature. This permits them to move about their host’s colonies undetected by the soldier termites. Similarly, T. mitnicki likely mimicked the pheromones of the termites, which limited the possibility of being sniffed out.

As it wandered through a colony, it likely undulated like a caterpillar, hugging the wall to avoid disturbing the termites. Using this disguise, this insect could have searched for scraps of food, perhaps consisting of fungi. When approached by a termite, T. mitnicki likely flattened its body to an extreme degree, expanding like pizza dough under a roller. It conformed to the walls of the termite nest. The grooves and fissures on its back mimicked the texture of the nest walls. Termites walked across the back of T. mitnicki, not realizing there was an intruder in the colony.

The entomology collections of the KU Biodiversity Institute include many insects such as T. mitnicki that are encased in fossilized resin, or amber. Millions of years ago, trees secreting resin trapped insects and bits of plant material such as leaves or pollen. Over millions of years, a chemical change transformed the resin into what is called amber.

Amber preserves specimens with life-like fidelity. It is a unique form of preservation in the realm of paleontology. Sometimes the colors of the insect, its organs and even individual cells are frozen in time and can be clearly viewed with a microscope. Amber acts as a lens focusing our view on ancient ecosystems and with its unparalleled clarity, we see these long-extinct species as though they still were among us today.