Treehoppers: bugs that look like Dali designed them

Ecologist and author Jerry A. Coyne writes about the amazing, bizarre treehoppers, which really, really do look like this (they were recently featured in a Nature article on Alfred Keller, who sculpted the model shown here):
The second thing one asks is, "What the bloody hell is all that ornamentation on the thorax?" (Note that the "balls" on the antenna-like structure aren't eyes, but simply spheres of chitin.) A first guess is that it's a sexually-selected trait, but those are often limited to males, and these creatures (and the ones below) show the ornaments in both sexes. Kemp hypothesizes--and this seems quite reasonable--that "the hollow globes, like the remarkable excrescences exhibited by other treehoppers, probably deter predators." It would be hard to grab, much less chow down on, a beast with all those spines and excrescences.
The surreal treehoppers (via Geisha Asobi)



    1. And by the way, thank you, Mr Gronlund, for my favorite image of the week! (And it’s only Monday!)

      I wonder which variety was deadliest: the ball-crowned, the three-horned, or the snake-necked?

    2. Yes, thanks for that Christopher. A reminder that people in the dusty past were well versed with the idea of kooky randomness.

  1. Those things might be no more functional than a peacock’s tailfeathers, but they sure look sensory to me.

    A ball of chitin garlanded with cilia could conceivably detect a lot of things, ranging from a simple extension of the sense of touch (like a cat’s whiskers) to something as exotic as barometric pressure (and thus, altitude). Sounds like a tremendously interesting subject of study to me!

  2. Have any of you seen Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (anime movie from Studio Ghibli)? This looks JUST LIKE the insects from the toxic jungle.

  3. It’s a big, obviously non bug-like, shape to hide beneath. If you’ve ever tried to hunt for pest insects who hide on branches amongst foliage, that makes them extremely tricky to find. And yeah, all that spiky chitinous mass probably isn’t very tasty, sure would make purty jewellery though.

  4. Just when I think bugs can’t get any more disgusting god throws out some shit like this. What’s the word coming to?

  5. While I admit it doesn’t look appetizing, that seems too… specific, not to mention awkward, just to deter predators. It’s got to be sensory, or mimicking something, or good for hanging its laundry, or something.

    1. It’s got to be sensory, or mimicking something, or good for hanging its laundry, or something.

      I agree. Nature selects for a lot of seemingly goofy traits, but this has to be one of the goofiest.

      Then again, how ’bout them ceratopsians? I’ll grant this bug is somewhat more elaborately adorned than your garden-variety Styracosaur, but I imagine it also had a few zillion more generations within which to refine its sartorial tastes. Still, sexiness alone seems a stretch. It’s hard to picture what combative or defensive advantage the treehopper’s rack might provide, and as camouflage it seems counterintuitive unless the critter likes to hide out in a pit full of skewered strawberries.

      Hell, maybe it just needs to scan for native lifeforms and communicate its findings to the mothership. That would make the most sense.

  6. This is all very Seussian.

    Geisha Asobi! I haven’t thought of that blog in forever. Glad to see they’re still around.

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