The surreal treehoppers

November 26, 2010 • 8:00 am

Last week’s Nature highlighted the sculptures of Alfred Keller (1902-1955), and the example, a model of the Brazilian treehopper Bocydium globulare, struck me as one of the weirdest animals I’ve ever seen:

Martin Kemp describes Keller’s work:

Keller was trained as a kunstschmied, an ‘art blacksmith’. From 1930 until his early death he was employed by the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History), painstakingly labouring over his recreations of insects and their larvae. Each took a year to complete. Keller worked first in plasticine, from which he cast a model in plaster. This plaster reference model he then recast in papier maché. Some details he added, cast in wax, with wings and bristles in celluloid and galalith (an early plastic material used in jewellery). Finally he coloured the surfaces, sometimes with additional gilding. The levels of patience and manual control Keller exercised were incredible. His fly, for example, boasts 2,653 bristles.

. . . Keller was a sculptor of monumental one-off portraits. Each model is a masterpiece, with no effort spared. It is difficult to see how such a skilled artisan could survive in today’s museums, with their emphasis on cost analysis. Keller’s exacting models may be things of the past, yet they are far from obsolete. Like the great habitat dioramas, they exercise a magnetic attraction.

The first thing a biologist does on seeing a model like this is think, “This can’t be real,” and resorts to some Googling. Sure enough, it’s a real insect.  Here are two photos by Patrick Landmann (check out his other terrific nature photos):

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.

Note, though, that the ornament sports many bristles.  If these are sensory bristles, and not just deterrents to predation or irritating spines, then the ornament may have an unknown tactile function.

Membracids, related to cicadas, are in the class Insecta (insects, of course), the order Hemiptera (“true bugs”) and the family Membracidae.  Like aphids, which are also “true bugs,” adult and immature treehoppers feed on plant sap.

For a wonderful panoply of membracid photos, download this pdf file. Here are some of the images, showing that, as Kipling said, “The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandu.” If Dali invented insects, they’d look like these (all photos by Patrick Landmann):

The color and shape of this last one makes me suspect that it’s mimicking a wasp:

h/t: Matthew Cobb

104 thoughts on “The surreal treehoppers

  1. Search your favourite news site for “squidworm.” Then, just for fun, look up a picture of Burgess animal Opabinia.

  2. “Keller was trained as a kunstschmied, an ‘art blacksmith’.”

    Hhmm….I’ve always associated “black”smith with iron, as opposed to goldsmith, silversmith etc. “Kunstschmied” is a collective term for smiths where art is the main aspect (usually working with precious or semiprecious metals or at least with bronze) as opposed to a blacksmith, who makes horseshoes and whatnot.

    1. Yes, as in ‘wordsmith’. So ‘Kunstschmied’ would be ‘artsmith’. But the meaning, according to the dictionary, is ‘wrought iron craftsman.’ And then, of course, there is also die Kunstschmiedin.

    1. They look like the ornaments would make it hard to swallow them. They resemble some other hemipterans – Cercopoidea – froghoppers, though the ones I know are hardly as exotic looking.

  3. I’m amazed that such ornamentation provides a fitness advantage, as the energetic costs to make and haul them around must be very significant, and it’s hard to imagine they function better than something like simple spines.

  4. Without access to Nature at the moment, did any of his pre-war pieces survive 1945?

    Otherwise, for works of a kunstschmied in the dictionary sense, if you find yourself at the U of Pittsburgh, the Cathedral of Learning is filled with Samuel Yellin’s work. My favorite details are the deer/elk heads atop the huge gate by the elevators – each is different.

  5. Those are some fantastic bugs. (Literally.)

    I wonder though if anyone else is annoyed at seeing that usage of “one-off” ever more frequently? Can anyone explain how that’s supposed to mean one *of* a kind?

    To me, “one off” means “one off the line.” That is, it’s a sample taken for statistical testing. This is the exact opposite of common usage, which I see as ever increasing. This disturbs me only slightly less than widespread magical thinking. Thank you.

    1. To me, “one off” means “one off the line.” That is, it’s a sample taken for statistical testing.

      I’ve never heard the term used in that way, and the common usage (“one of a kind”) seems to come from foundry work (in describing how many copies were to come “off” of a mould). The first usage of the specific term “one-off” in this sense dates to 1937.

      1. Thanks, Tulse, for the link. So it’s not as without basis as I thought. Still seems awkward but maybe it won’t annoy me so much henceforth. I still think it would be more sensible to say “one-of,” though.

        1. ‘one off’ is a common Australianism for one-of-a-kind. Interesting to see it spreading. The first time I used it in North America, I was asked to define it.

      2. I’m not english, but I’ve always understood “one off” as a unique product (well, off “of the line”, say), not a sample. I didn’t know it came from foundries specifically though, thanks!

    2. Referring to Keller’s work,”one-off”is used in the sense of bespoke, custom-made, unique unto itself, one of a kind.

  6. All of the individuals pictured are adults, with wings. This raises 2 questions
    1. How functional are those wings? I’m thinking those ornaments really screw up the aerodynamics, and these things can’t actually fly.
    2. What do the sub-adult stages look like? Hemiptera nymphs, from what I’ve seen, tend to look more-or-less like the adult, but without wings.

    Very cool, thanks for putting this up.

  7. It’s surprising how “this can’t be real” turns to “you can’t make this shit up”. The made up ones tend to resemble existing creatures – frequently (but not always) made up by people with pretty limited imaginations. Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (but I love the PNWTE).

    I know what the artists must feel like. I build instruments and people always want to rush things seemingly with no concern over quality of design and manufacture and usability.

  8. Some of those almost look like fungus fruiting bodies, is that a possibility? Presumably it’s not, although it looks like some of them are camouflaged to look like various vegetation structures.

      1. The last one certainly looks like a wasp mimic in this view. I wonder if it’s solitary rather than herd-forming.

        The middle three do seem to have been selected to resemble plant bits. Membracids apparently spend a lot of time sitting on stems extracting sap and so are often very cryptic to human (and probably bird) eyes. Many look like leaves and some like thorns. They sometimes “spoil” their thorn mimicry by moving to the back side of the stem if you get too close. Thorns seldom do that.

        I wonder why the Bocydium couldn’t be playing some sort of camouflage game too? Where does it feed? Do the globular ornaments resemble buds, or something, on a plant host?

        In any event, the weird ornamentation should at least break up the “insect” outline of the thing and so might help hide it from visually hunting predators. Unless they turn specialist?

        Is the antlered sp. without the globules a close relative? I wonder how its habitat/host differs.

        1. I wonder why the Bocydium couldn’t be playing some sort of camouflage game too? Where does it feed? Do the globular ornaments resemble buds, or something, on a plant host?

          Certainly appears that way, doesn’t it? Ooh, the co-evolutionary war is so riveting!

      2. Me three. How very cool!! And indeed a wonderful vid, Tristan.

        In addition to the more obvious mimicries of thorns, etc., some of the other bugs pictured could be mimicking tree sap and lichens…

        The odd one out seems to be the wasp-mimic. Though I will have to have a look at the pdf MC links to!

          1. That’s the one – or at least, a slightly shortened version of it. Sorry, still haven’t mastered the art of sharing Youtube links from the iPhone.

    1. Is it possible that their appendages mimic something like the Cordyceps fungi, making them less appealing to predators?

  9. The first thing a biologist does on seeing a model like this is think, “This can’t be real,”

    Isn’t that why they are called bugs, they can really bug you? (O.o)

  10. It’s insects that remind me our ‘form’ is by no means evolutionary certain. Freaky stuff! Though I’m sure if theywere sapient they’d say the same about me.

    1. It also underlines the limitless diversity that so bugged Darwin. Why should an Intelligent Designer create so profligately? (In fact if we were really meant to be Lords of Creation, why create other life at all? Of course Bocydium globulare might say the same thing.)

  11. There’s a Discovery doco called Aliens of the Amazon that’s all about treehoppers. The explanation of teh evolutionz is terrible, but the bugs are awesome.

    Some of the treehoppers in the doco look exactly like insects killed by that fungus Tristan was talking about. They’re freaky.

    The doco also shows a female treehopper standing guard over her nymphs and chasing predatory insects away. Is that unusual for insects?

    1. not unusual. in fact i’ve a library book about it i must return:

      James T. Costa: “the other insect socieities”. it’s really thick and has over a 100 pages on all sorts of hemipterans.

  12. My first thought when I saw that last image (Heteronotus maculatus) was that it must have been lifted from a certain creationist coffee table book of fishing lures. Maybe this is life imitating art imitating life.

  13. The traditional blacksmith, which we associate with horse shoeing, is called a “farrier.” There are also “ornamental blacksmiths” who use the same forge and tools to make gates, staircases, weather vanes, fences, and all manner of decorative garden and yard objects. Some incorporate other metals into their work (brass, copper, bronze, titanium, gold).

  14. I wonder whether these ornamentations aid in balance during these insect’s amazing jumps. Or at least were first selected for stability issues, then subsequently selected for species recognition.

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  16. When I was a graduate student in entomology back in the 60s and early 70s, there was a display case in front of the departmental office filled with all manner of incredible insects. Privately, we called them our “Jesus Christ” bugs. People from the outside would come in, take one look, and go “Jesus Christ !!”

    1. 12 years later from the date of your entry here, I want to add to your reason for the mockingbirds’ singing. They mimic, quite effectively, the trills, chirps, squawks, and other formidable noises of the the ornithological inhabitants of their neighborhoods. All night. All day. In measures of 5s, 7s, and sometimes innumerable repetitions. I’ve tried counting the notes and searching for patterns within their outpourings but all I’ve successfully come up with is a theory: The songs appear to make the area alive with many types of birds, warning each (not just its own kindred members) that the airspace is taken up with something formidable from each category of bird, be it finch or hawk, crow or nuthatch. The mockingbird has perfected a way to warn away a variety of neighboring birds with a song they all recognize as hailing from their own. Heck, if some human was perched on a utility post or hanging out on the top of a chimney screaming “Stay the f— away from my property,” I’d be inclined to avoid approaching, even with caution. The multilingual mockingbird is deserving of widespread respect.

  17. With the bristles on the globes . . . I too wondered if they could be related to sensing sound . . . kind of inside out ears.

    I have never seen such insects before. There are so many apparently peculiar life-forms which are either too small to see or which live in places we can’t easily reach, it is frustrating. I feel I am missing out horribly in that by the time I die I will have seen hardly anything.


  18. Concerning the bristled globes on top, they remind me of a piece of military hardware that can detect the source and trajectory of bullets. That hardware is shaped very much like one of the bristled globes. I wonder if it is, in fact, a sensory organ.

  19. I propose that the hollow chitin globes are resonating chambers for audio location and broadcasting.

  20. The May 5th Nature had a cover article on treehoppers. Careful anatomical and embryological study of the beauties appears to disclose that their helmets are really alterations of a pair of wings, suppressed in the first thoracic segment in all other insects for hundreds of millions of years.

  21. Can anyone help me to identify an insect that lived in my garden last year? I grow morning glory every year and I keep constantly checking for insects that harm it. I saw something that resembled poop, here and there. I discover that there was a triangular pattern of it in different sizes. I wore glasses and touched that excrescence and goodness! It lifted up the ‘poop’ disguise to show a ‘naked’ soft insect, long and plump. I haven’t being able to find it anywhere. Thanks. MaricelLovesInsects

  22. “The first thing a biologist does on seeing a model like this is think, “This can’t be real,” and resorts to some Googling.”
    That’s exactly what I did and how I got here. I simply could not believe that this “thing” was for real. However, with this one I am going full head creationist! This was designed one day when the Allmighty had a few kids over and they were all playing with “life playdo” and He said “who can come up with the weirdest animal gets a free galaxy on a necklace!” This treehopper is the one that won! The winner was a little three year old called Zaphod.

  23. It looks like they’re meant for camouflage… The second insect looks like a tree branch, third one like a peanut, 4th one like some sort of dried/dead lief or branch, last one like some wasp or so.

    Perhaps the first one just looks like some spiky round black plant? This one perhaps?

    (I just Googled for a couple of minutes, it looks similar. I don’t know anything about it, e.g. I didn’t check if it can be found in the same region as the bug?…) What do you think??

  24. Could it be that the reason for those balls are only for camouflage purposes only? Since these insects live on trees it’s logical to presume that these balls are mimics of fruit.

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