Every now and then, Mother Nature reminds us how sick and twisted she really can be.
Each year, scientists discover roughly 18,000 new species of life, and most of them aren't cute or cuddly. This wasp species from Thailand, described last April in the journal PLOS ONE, is no exception.
The 4/10-of-an-inch-long insect has a few disturbing tricks up its sleeves — or at least it would if insects had sleeves — like the ability to enslave cockroaches by essentially turning them into zombies.
With tactics like that, it’s no wonder that the wasp was named Ampulex dementor, after the soul-sucking, ghost-like creatures from the Harry Potter series.
When it's time for a female of the species to lay her eggs, she first has to find a cockroach. She lands on its back and uses her stinger to penetrate the roach's head and introduce a neurotoxin that causes it to become extremely obedient to the wasp. This works because the cockroach is still able to move but is not able to control its movements.
The female wasp is then able to lead the roach back to her burrow, where things start to get even more interesting.
Once safely inside the burrow, the wasp actually lays her eggs inside the cockroach. The roach not only acts as an incubator for a few days, but will also be eaten alive as the first meal for the larvae once they hatch.
It sounds gruesome (mostly because it is) but this practice isn't unheard of in the animal kingdom because it is pretty effective. A. dementor happens to parasitize cockroaches, but there are other species of wasp who wield similar power over caterpillars and tarantulas.
The name was decided through public voting at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, but given the nature of this insect, there really wasn’t any contest.
According to the paper, here were the choices that museum-goers were given:
A. dementor: "The species name refers to the dementors, which are fictional characters appearing in Harry Potter books. Dementors are magical beings, which can consume a person's soul, leaving their victims as an empty but functional body without personality or emotions. The name is an allusion to the docility of the paralyzed cockroach."
A. mon: "The Mon people are one of the earliest known ethnic groups in Thailand. The name is an allusion to the geographic origin of the wasp from Thailand."
A. bicolor: "Derived from the Latin bi = two and color = color; an allusion to the distinctive, black-red coloration of the wasp."
A. plagiator: "The new species is an ant-mimic: It tries to imitate ants in its general appearance as well as in its way of moving. One can say that the wasp is a plagiarist of the ant, and who is not reminded of current plagiarisms …?"
See? Naming these after the creatures in Harry Potter's nightmares was really the only way to go.
While these amazingly terrifying wasps have only recently become known to science, the world could be in danger of losing them already.
[Header image: Ohl et al., 2014]