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Light-mimicking cockroaches indicate Tertiary origin of recent terrestrial luminescence


Bioluminescence is a common feature of the communication and defence of marine organisms, but this phenomenon is highly restricted in the terrestrial biota. Here, we present a geographical distribution of only the third order of luminescent insects—luminescent cockroaches, with all 13 known and/or herein reported new living species (based on deposited specimens). We show that, for the first time, photo-characteristics of three examined species are nearly identical with those of toxic luminescent click beetles, which they mimic. These observations are the evidence for the mimicry by light—a new type of defensive, Batesian and interordinal mimicry. Our analysis surprisingly reveals an evolutionary novelty of all living luminescent insects, while in the sea (and possibly in the soil) luminescence is present also phylogenetically in very primitive organisms.

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This work has been generated during the stay of PV (NMNH award) in the Departments of Paleobiology and Entomology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA. We thank Conrad Labandeira, Finnegan Marsch and David Furth (all NMNH Washington, D.C.) for organising the stay of PV. We also thank Martina Zemanová (Institute of Physics, Bratislava), Michal Poljak (Comenius University, Bratislava) and Ľubomír Vidlička (Zoological Institute SAV, Bratislava) for technical help. We thank Adam Tomášových for revision of the manuscript and Brendan FR Edwards for linguistic revision. Supported by UNESCO-Amba, IGCP 458, Research Grant Agency VEGA 6002, 02/0152, 2/0201/10, International Scientifical and Technical Cooperation Programme (MVTS), Literary fund, Schwarz stipend, the EC’s 7FP project LASERLAB-EUROPE (grant agreement no. 228334) and ERDF—Operational Program Research and Development by means of projects NanoNet2 (ITMS:26240120018) and CEKOMAT (ITMS: 26240120006) 26240120020.

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Correspondence to Peter Vršanský.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

First two authors contributed equally to this work.

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Vršanský, P., Chorvát, D., Fritzsche, I. et al. Light-mimicking cockroaches indicate Tertiary origin of recent terrestrial luminescence. Naturwissenschaften 99, 739–749 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-012-0956-7

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  • Evolutionary ecology
  • Luminescence
  • Batesian mimicry
  • Endangered species
  • Cockroaches