An assassin’s camouflage

As it happens so very often, I thought I saw something move on the trunk of the tree that I had just walked past. I stopped. I walked back a few paces to the tree to check if I did indeed see something or if I was simply imagining. I glanced up and down the trunk. Blank. Nothing at all! Was I imagining?  Perhaps.

I walked a few paces forward and stopped. There was this nagging feeling that there was something that was hidden from plain sight. So I walked back to the tree, determined to prove that I was not imagining things. This time I examined the tree trunk very carefully. As I did so, I saw something unusual – a cluster of ants in a crack in the bark.

It was interesting to see a few ants of different species huddling together. A bunch of ants… and not moving? That was very strange. As I observed carefully, I realized that the ants were dead. Some ants were intact while there were also various parts of their exoskeletons and possibly that of other creatures too. But why were the ants dead? What was holding the dead ants and parts thereof together? This was intriguing.

I couldn’t hold back any more. Gently, I touched the cluster of dead ants. My finger barely touched it and I jumped. The unexpected movement of the entire cluster of dead ants caused me to pull back my hand.

The whole thing started moving in short bursts. Now that it was more in the open, I could discern the presence of sand particles also alongside the dead ants.

Only when I managed to get some pictures and enlarged them on my phone screen was I able to see the legs, the eyes and the antennae. The entire insect was completely covered with sand barring the eyes and antennae!

But what kind of insect would want to cover itself entirely with all kinds of debris and carry it around? I was left wondering for the entire time that I watched it move about on the tree trunk as it went higher and beyond view.

The only thing that was very obvious was the camouflage this behaviour afforded the owner. Other questions like – How does it get hold of dead ants and other material? – had to wait until much later.

Eventually, I learnt that nymphs of Assassin Bugs were known to behave in this manner. And, being predators even during their early stages they prey on ants and other small creatures. Using their stiff mouthparts, they suck their prey dry and now you know what happens to the remains!

I have written about Assassin Bugs earlier. You can read more about them here Assassin Bugs.

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