This Bug Has Heard All Your Jokes About Its Head Already
THIS MALE LACEWING looks like he’s wearing a dildo as a festive party hat. It’s not a sexual organ, but it is involved in sex.
It’s a glenofinger. That’s not an obscure Bond villain, but an inflatable “come hither” signal to females. The bulging gland gets bigger when the male is interested in a hookup. How does it work? “Well, we’re not completely sure,” said Dr. Shaun Winterton, Senior Insect Biosystematist for the California Department of Food & Agriculture. He was working on a “very ho-hum new description” of a lacewing from Australia when he noticed something interesting: two preserved male specimens had a strange dimple on their neck—a glenofinger.
Dr. Peter Duelli first described this odd structure in 2004, when he observed males slowly erecting their glenofinger—but they were very shy. “When the males are undisturbed, the glenofinger can grow to almost the size of the abdomen. At the slightest disturbance (vibration, noise, shadow) it’s withdrawn.” Winterton commented, “They’re very secretive about it. You really have to set the mood for this sort of thing to happen.”
Winterton’s not sure if the glenofinger inflates with air, or fills with body fluid. “We know only the males of the genus Glenochrysa have these glands,” he says. “A good analogy would be the pockets of your jeans, it’s tucked away like a pocket.” In other words, if you pulled your pockets inside out, and then filled them with body fluid, it would be like having a glenofinger. On your groin. On second thought, let’s not pursue that analogy.
The insect’s protuberance releases pheromones, or chemical sexual attractants. And size does matter. The bigger the gland, the more area there is for pheromones to disperse from. Many other lacewings have smelly glands, but they are mostly on their side, or near the anus. Aside from this one group of little lacewings, none have a phallic-shaped gland on the back of their head.
The most solid piece of scientific truth I know of is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature.LEWIS THOMAS
Obviously, I’m focusing on the prurient details of this structure, but it reveals an important point. We discover new things about the world around us every day. Lacewings are common predatory insects, so are of interest because they help farmers and gardeners by eating aphids and other plant nibblers. But knowing about these animals is important not just because there is a dollar sign involved. Studying random little bugs helps us understand how the world works. We discover surprising and unexpected things the closer we look.
“Taxonomy is awesome because we get to discover the true nature of the biology of the earth,” says Winterton. “We can’t manage it unless we know about it. The only way we can know about it is through taxonomy. Essentially, if we don’t go out and discover these plants and animals, then we will never know, potentially, that they had existed.”
If you aren’t discovering something new and unusual in nature everyday, look a little closer. It’s there.