Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pinky the Katydid: June ? - July 29, 2009 RIP

A great many people were indoctrinated to the charms of the katydid world via "Pinky", the beautiful creature above. A very rare pink color morph, she was exposed to probably over 200,000 people in various media, and many through direct contact as she was exhibited here and there. Today would have been her first day at the Ohio State Fair and had she made that gig and lasted for the fair's duration, tens of thousands more would have come to know her.

But it was not to be. We knew that a parasitoid of some sort was at work, and its larva was within Pinky. Today, when I arrived at the office and went to check on her, she was lying on the terrarium floor, expired.

Tragic is this may be, it opens up another learning opportunity, this time into a little known, horrifying, but pervasive part of nature. WARNING: some of the shots that follow are graphic autopsy photos of the pinkster being subjected to CSI-like study. But it is just a bug, and they aren't THAT graphic!

Entomologist Dr. Norm Johnson in his lab at Ohio State University. Norm was good enough to take time from his schedule to open Pinky up, and see if he could ascertain exactly what happened. He did, as we'll see. Norm is one of the world's top experts on parasitoid insects, especially wasps. The other man is Skip Trask, who was shooting the operation for Wild Ohio TV.

With the help of a dissecting scope, Norm carefully opened Pinky up so we could see what was within.

A bit gruesome, perhaps, but instructive. This photo was taken immediately after Norm identified the cause of death and isolated the attacker. That large grublike thing within Pinky's abdomen is just that - a fully grown larva of a tachinid fly. This is an enormous, diverse and abundant group of parasitoid flies, and we don't know what species it is exactly, but more about them in a bit.

Here's the grub, pulled out for better viewing. The two black spots are essentially breathing ports, and it'll press those near an opening in the katydid's body to get air. Probably, the small hole noticed by Wil Hershberger and shown in this post is what the grub was using as an air port.

Here you can see the scale of the grub as compared to the katydid, and the latter is not a small insect. By the time she expired, the fly larva had consumed nearly all of her innards. I've said this before and I'll say it again: if you are a fan of reincarnation, don't get yourself brought back as any type of insect. This sort of demise is extremely common in the insect world; probably most individuals of many groups of insects are attacked and killed in this manner. And there are parasitoid insects that attack other parasitoids - no one is safe!

One of the scores of species of Tachinid flies, courtesy the University of Nebraska Department of Entomology. You've probably seen these things. They often look like especially coarsely bristled house flies. And they are everywhere.

Their modus operandi are varied. Some tachinids lay an egg directly on the host insect. It hatchs and the tiny grub bores into the insect, and eventually grows to the point of what we saw in the photos above. Other flies deposit a tiny grub directly on the host, while others lay an egg near areas frequented by suitable hosts, and the grubs make their way to the victim. Still other tachinids lay eggs on plants that are likely to be eaten by insect hosts, and thus get their offspring into the victim in that manner.

Ah, nature. Life can be cruel and seemingly horrifying once one learns some of the nuts and bolts of how certain things operate. But these sort of relationships have been forged over many millions of years, and are an integral part of the ecosystem whether we like it or not.

But I'll miss the pinkster. Here's hoping we find another next year! Thanks again to Jan Kennedy for finding Pinky, and Cheryl Harner for helping to care for her.


Jared said...

Yikes. Fascinating series of posts on Pinky. Sure glad I'm not an insect.

Anonymous said...

that is awfully sad but very amazing. I had no idea how common this type of thing is in the insect world.

Jana said...

GROSS, but all in all a fascinating saga. Poor Pinky.

Dave Lewis said...

I shouldn't have read this whle eating breakfast...

Tom said...


What an incredibly interesting and sad end to this story, but what a story it was.


nina at Nature Remains. said...

So interesting.
And if she hadn't been the focus of so much attention, this, too, would have been missed.
Your entire story of her discovery, brief rise into the limelight, and death as another's life has been the perfect introduction for many into the fascinating world of insects.

Sylvia said...

I'm surprised to learn that you were only guessing that huge thing was hidden inside. Amazing.

birdchick said...

I've had similar parasites in some of my caterpillar ranching, this was a great post explaining it.

I wish we had some sort of award system like the Emmys for excellent blog posts given annually. This has been so cool and educational.

Sorry that Pinky is gone, but the things we learned from here are amazing.

Heather said...

I'm sad Pinky didn't live long enough to be on display at the State Fair. She would have been such a great introduction to yet another endlessly fascinating part of our natural world for many - I was looking forward to seeing her and "introducing" her to my family while at the fair. I imagine she would have had quite a crowd. If only "Bug CSI" could catch the hearts and imagination of those the way human CSI does! Thanks for all the fantastic and informative posts about her, Jim!

Kelly said...

Oh my goodness... I've fallen in love with little Pinky over the past week, seeing all the posts. She came in famous and went out the same. Incredibly interesting...I didn't know that could happen. I always learn something new on your blog!

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you very much for your comments, and I'm glad that everyone enjoyed "Pinky". Rare is the teaching moment that this elfin beast offered.

I know I learned a lot from her.


Teri and the cats of Furrydance said...

Wow...I came here via BirdChick, and found this very interesting, being a vet tech and all

Bob Scott said...

Nobody has a better blog! I learn so much, and the pictures are awesome. Thanks, Jim! Really glad I got to see Pinky alive too.

dAwN said...

Yikes yikes...I read this when your post just came out but havent commented until now.
It is fascinating and sad. Poor little pinky.
I would like to link to this post on my Blogaholic Weekly reader.
Would you mind if I used one of your photoa to do this?

Bhavesh Chhatbar said...

This article is the most extensive and explanatory article I have ever read in the blogosphere. How cruel but true to the facts that nature may seem cruel and unacceptable at times, but that's a part of the complex ecosystem that we are destroying super fast.

Slow and Beautiful — Snail

Ginny said...

Here is an article about Pink Katydids:

Nature: Golden fly a beauty, not some biting pest

An Atylotus bicolor fly, dubbed a "golden velveteen fly" after a recent sighting by explorers at Mentor Marsh near Cleveland/Ji...