Animals

Love Bug Wears Its Heart on Its Leg

A new beetle with a Valentine-shaped joint on its leg only seems to think about mating.

Valentine's Day is every day for a newly discovered group of beetles whose members sport a prominent "heart" on their legs.

The heart is actually a trochanter, a joint or leg segment that helps connect the upper leg to the abdomen. Humans also have a part called the "greater trochanter," only not in such a fancy shape.

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The beetles, described in a new study in the journal Acta Entomologica, have another connection to Valentine's Day. They only seem to think about one thing: mating.

"All of the specimens so far have been male. We have yet to see a female," lead author Max Barclay said in a press release. "Its closest relatives are parasites developing inside other insects. We don't yet know what its heart-shaped joint is used for, but we do know that the males don't even have a functional mouth to eat, so their only purpose is to search for mates. They certainly have a one-track mind."

Barclay is the beetle collections manager at London's National History Museum, which houses specimens representing more than half of the known beetle species on Earth, making it the largest and most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world. Barclay is, therefore, arguably the planet's foremost beetle expert.

While examining a batch of several thousand mixed insects collected during a field trip to Central America, Barclay spotted the unusual beetles. He knew they were extraordinary when he spotted the prominent heart-shaped joints.

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More research determined that the beetles represent a new genus, named Ivierhipidius, whose members live in a Belize rainforest.

"There are more than 400,000 known beetle species. They are the largest group of organisms on the planet, playing a critical role in ecosystems," Barclay said.

"One in five of living creatures is a beetle," Barclay added, "and we are still uncovering new species today, even some with new modifications of body parts that disclose more about their evolution and way of life."

The “love bug” beetle from the new genus Ivierhipidius has a decidedly romantic shape to its leg.

Americans on average share their homes with 100, and up to 211, different types of tiny animals known as arthropods, according to a new study. The study, published in the journal PeerJ, is the first to evaluate the biodiversity of such little creatures in U.S. homes. Arthropods are animals that have protective external coverings, segmented bodies and jointed limbs. They include insects, spiders, mites, centipedes and more. "I was surprised by the number of specimens we collected from very typical homes, as well as how many rooms we found them in," lead author Matt Bertone told Discovery News. "For instance I didn't expect some groups to be in every home we sampled, and I would not have expected, for example, cobweb spiders to be found in 65 percent of rooms." Bertone, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, and his colleagues also found a lot of ants, such as this search party of little black ants that succeeded in finding a morsel of food on a couch. He explained, "A variety of ants (Formicidae) can commonly be found in homes. These social insects often form trails of workers looking for food and water."

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Bertone and his team visited 50 free-standing houses within 30 miles of Raleigh, N.C., between May and October of 2012. The scientists went room to room, collecting all of the arthropods that they could find. These included both living and dead specimens. The scientists identified no fewer than 579 different types of arthropods during the survey. While the location of a home is a factor, it is expected that houses across the United States will have most, if not all, of the arthropods included on this list. One such creature is the book louse. "Book lice (Liposcelididae) are tiny insects found in many habitats, often in animal nests and human homes," Bertone said. "They are related to true parasitic lice but instead of blood and skin, book lice feed on molds, dead insects, stored food products, and other bits of organic matter."

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Entire families of some arthropods in various life stages can exist in a given home. This image shows the larvae of carpet beetles. "Like tiny pipe cleaners, carpet beetle larvae (Dermestidae) are covered in many hairs," Bertone said. "These hairs are specially modified to interfere with predators, clogging up the mouths of would-be hunters. Carpet beetle larvae typically feed on wool and other hair, feathers, and dead insects." He added that the vast majority of arthropods found in homes are not pest species. They are either peaceful cohabitants, or accidental visitors.

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Many of the tiny animals detected by the researchers had clearly wandered in from outdoors or were brought in on something, such as cut flowers. Not all accidental visitors or arrivals survive for very long indoors. Some drop dead pretty quickly. Cellar spiders, which do well in homes, help to consume some of the newly arrived, and newly dead. "Cellar spiders (Pholcidae), sometimes called daddy-longlegs, are thin legged and reside in webs," Bertone said. "They are often found in basements and crawl spaces, but can be found elsewhere in homes. Although they feed on small arthropods that they capture in their webs, they are also known to invade the webs of other spiders to eat the residents."

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A surprising finding from the study was that only five of the 554 rooms surveyed by the researchers did not contain any arthropods. Bertone said that we tend to think of our homes as sterile environments, but that they actually provide good evidence for biodiversity. One creature living in your midst is probably the dark-winged fungus gnat. "Many come from the soil of overwatered houseplants or compost bins," Bertone said. "They can be an annoyance, but do not bite."

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Many spiders live out their entire life cycles in homes, as numerous human residents could attest. Spitting spiders are common. They have an extra pair of silk glands in their head, attached to their venom glands, which enable them to spit a venomous silk on prey. They then tie the victim up, Bertone said, "so the spider can delicately bite the food item." Cobweb spiders (Theridiidae), like this male (left) and female (right) house spider (

Parasteatoda tepidariorum

), are also common members of U.S. households. "They create irregular webs, which have trip wires to the ground," Bertone said. "When crawling insects come into contact with these tight strands, the connection is broken and the prey gets pulled into the web."

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Certain non-human, non-pet residents of homes go in and outside of the house from time to time. Ground beetles, for example, sometimes willingly wander into homes, looking for prey. They might then crawl back outside. "They will feed on many types of small arthropods, ripping them apart with powerful mandibles," Bertone said. Homes with gardens clearly facilitate this indoor/outdoor lifestyle. While the researchers did not conduct the survey in apartments, they suspect that fewer such arthropods associated with outdoor environments would be found, but "maybe more pests," Bertone guessed.

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Different types of silverfish, such as the gray silverfish and the four-lined silverfish, are common in U.S. homes. "Silverfish (Lepismatidae) are ancient insects that lack wings and have shiny scales all over their body," Bertone said. "They are well adapted to living in homes because they can survive on low nutrient materials such as crumbs, dead insects and even glues, paper and leather."

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Also called drain flies, moth flies (Psychodidae) are similar to small moths, but are in fact true flies, Bertone said. "Their larvae inhabit pipes and drains, where they feed on the muck and organic matter that builds up. For this reason, adults are often found in bathrooms. The adults are harmless and do not bite." Flies, in general, constituted one of the most commonly collected groups of arthropods in homes. Outside of arthropods, U.S. homes contain still more different types of non-pet animals. Bertone explained that these other small creatures often commonly require high humidity or moisture to survive. "These types of animals, including various worms, snails, and slugs, may be present in some basements, but would be absent from the main parts of homes," he added.

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The well-named ghost spider exemplifies many of the tiny animals that the researchers found. It lurks around homes, mostly unseen, and spends a fair amount of time searching for food. Ghost spiders, like other so-called hunting spiders, do not make webs. "These types of spiders can be common in homes, crawling along the floor or up the walls," Bertone said. Entomologist Michelle Trautwein of the California Academy of Sciences, said that the new study provides "only a first glimpse into the species that live in our homes, and more work needs to be done to flesh this picture out." In the future, she hopes that more will be learned about how the tiny animals benefit, harm or otherwise affect ecosystems and human health. She also hopes their traits will be explored, to see if they share evolutionary characteristics that have made them better suited to live with humans. Bertone believes that the study's biggest take home message is that while the findings may be a little frightening to some people, "Most of the arthropods we found are harmless to humans and are very small and inconspicuous. They go about their lives and rarely interfere with ours."

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