One of the striking observations about life on oceanic islands—those islands, like Hawaii and the Galapagos, that arose, bereft of life, from volcanic activity below the sea—is the prevalence of native birds, insects, and plants, and the paucity of native reptiles, mammals, and amphibians. (Continental islands, like Great Britain, that were once connected to larger land masses, don’t show this pattern.)
Darwin was the first to make this observation and show that it supported his theory of evolution. Plants, insects, and birds can more easily get to islands, where they evolve in relative isolation into new species, while mammals, reptiles, and amphibians can’t easily cross large expanses of seawater to colonize distant islands. His view could be summed up as biogeographic patterns = dispersal + evolution.
One of the ways that plants get to islands (besides via their seeds floating in seawater) is through bird movement: birds eat fruit and seeds, fly to an island, and the seeds germinate from the bird’s post-migration poop. In fact, I think a lot more plants have arrived on islands this way than by seed flotation, but don’t quote me on that.
But more than plants can get to islands in bird poop. A new short paper in Ecology by S. Kenji et al. (reference below, free pdf here) shows that stick insects (phasmids) produce hard-shelled eggs that can remain viable and hatch after they pass through a bird’s digestive tract. Moreover, since the eggs don’t require fertilization (they’re from “parthenogenesis”), they don’t have to be fertilized right before being laid, as most insect eggs are. They can simply be nommed by the birds right after being laid, or ingested by gobbling a pregnant female.
The eggs of many stick insects are sculptured like seeds and, more important, have a hard layer of calcium oxalate on the outside that is dissolved only by acidic environments like bird stomachs (this layer appears unique to phasmids). You can see some of these tough eggs in part “B” of the figure below, taken from the paper.
The authors fed eggs of three species of phasmids, mixed with an artificial diet, to Japanese brown-eared bulbuls (Hypsipetes amaurotis), which they claim is one of the main predators of stick insects. They then collected fecal pellets of from the birds when they were pooped out within three hours, and measured hatchability of the eggs. Those hatchabilities were 5%, 8.3% and 8.9% (sample sizes between 40 and 60 eggs per species).
The figure below shows bulbuls eating a phasmid, the eggs, and a nymph of one phasmid species:
One obvious conclusion is that, given that bulbuls can fly about 40-60 km/hour, they could disperse phasmid eggs over a hundred kilometers (eggs are produced at about the time the Japanese brown eared bulbuls migrate). The authors fed eggs excised from adult phasmids to the birds, which suggests further that the birds could ingest a bunch of eggs at once simply by eating a pregnant female (they didn’t do this test).
The next questions are these:
1.) Did the eggs evolve that hard coat to facilitate dispersal? There are advantage to dispersing your offspring widely, especially if local predation is high or environments uncertain, and many species of animals have evolved elaborate dispersal mechanisms. (Fruits with seeds inside are one of these!). This is possible, but the authors prefer the idea that the tough eggs evolved to reduce parasitism by wasps. But of course the coat could have evolved for several “reasons” (and by that I mean there could have been more than one reproductive advantage to toughening up your eggs).
2.) Have phasmids actually dispersed this way? We don’t know, as the biogeographic studies haven’t been done. As the authors note, this should show up as evidence for wider dispersal of parthenogenetic phasmids than of their sexually-reproducing relatives:
If avian dispersal is important to stick insects, the phylogeographical patterns should reflect occasional long‐distance dispersal events (e.g., Miura et al. 2012). In addition, the patterns of spatial genetic structure will differ among stick insects with parthenogenetic reproductive capability (and hence potential avian dispersal) and non‐parthenogenetic stick insects. The phylogeographical patterns in these stick insects thus deserves further studies.
Kenji, S., F. Shoichi, T. Asuka, I. Katsura, and Y. Takeshi. 2018 Potential role of bird predation in the dispersal of otherwise flightless stick insects. Ecology. doi: 10.1002/ecy.2230