Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 25, 2009

Living Tiddly Winks

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:54 pm

Nature does not exist soley for our entertainment, but this component should not be overlooked. I’m pretty sure that animals get their chuckles out of watching us. As an example of this, I offer the Red Squirrel that keeps stuffing walnuts into our car’s blower fan. He perches in the maple tree just outside the door and waits for us start the thing up and produce the horrible whining sound resulting from this treatment. The squirrel laughs and then runs away.  I believe that the walnut trees are in on this gag as well, but they aren’t speaking.

Therefore, I think it’s o.k. to get a little entertainment at the expense of another creature – as long as the creature isn’t harmed in the process. So, when I discovered a cluster of Click Beetles in my woodpile (see above and here) I immediately put one of them to work. Click Beetles aren’t called that for nothin’. These entertaining little insects have the ability to explosively flip themselves over when placed on their backs. There are hundreds of species, members of a group known as the Elater beetles, and all have this ability.  Before I go any further, take a peek at this video (flipp’n clicker ) and be entertained. No beetles were harmed in the making this video – at least physically!

There is more to this ability than meets the eye or the ear for that matter (they make an audible click when performing this manuever). These beetles possess a peg that extends out from the the first section of their thorax(located between the first two legs as seen here). Normally, this peg is held safely within a furrow in the adjacent thoracic section. When desired, the beetle arches back, pulls the peg out and catches it’s tip on a knob at the head of the furrow pit. Muscles pulling down on this peg create tremendous tension and causes it to suddenly snap downward. The force of this action propels the beetle 8-10 inches into the air like a living tiddly wink. It flies through the atmosphere and, more often than not, lands right side up.

This skill is not just for flipping over, however. When you grab onto Click Beetles they begin to click like small maniacs. Because the creatures are very smooth and seed-shaped, they are able to snap their way out in short order. Each percussive snap vibrates through the hard shelled body and loosens the attackers grip. They are very difficult for predators to pin down.

Predator, or irritating human, avoidance is probably the primary reason for this clicking ability. They can actually flip over without launching themselves, but this is not always reported. One web site commentary even goes so far as to say that a click beetle literally “cannot right itself by rolling on it’s short legs.” While I was putting my beetle through the moves, it managed to turn itself over several times by simply rolling over.

In retrospect, I guess I can be justly accused of promoting this “click or die” idea, however. The simple roll-over portions of the movie clip were, of course, edited out because they weren’t that entertaining. Like all entertainers my beetle simply refused to perform at one point. After a half dozen click and flip sequences, it played possum. Antennas folded and legs tucked, the beast remained comfortably on it’s back as if to remind me that it was not a tiddly wink toy. The ploy worked. I became bored and released it from it’s contractual commitments.

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