Earwigs (Labidura riparia) mimic rotting-flesh odor to deceive vertebrate predators

Abstract

Many insects repel predators with caustic chemicals, while insects mimicking odors of wastes/dead insects to fool predators have not been documented. We found that the shore earwig, Labidura riparia (Dermaptera: Labiduridae) when bitten by anole lizards, Anolis carolinenesus, spits a rotting-flesh odor that deceives these insectivores into rejecting prey. Once a lizard attacked and rejected an earwig, the lizard did not attack another earwig during several weeks despite consuming other prey, indicating associative learning after one trial. The fetid odor was found in the head-prothorax containing salivary glands of both male and female earwigs and was comprised of ∼100 ng dimethyl disulfide and ∼600 ng dimethyl trisulfide. Nymphs had <5 ng of either compound. Adults also spit odorous sulfides after prolonged attacks by harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex rugosus, who were only deterred by the earwig’s forceps. Sulfides released by the earwig are similar to odors of carrion/feces, which may be innately repulsive to some vertebrate predators. The mean initial discharge percentage (IDP) of sulfides from a cohort of earwigs was 62 %; however, IDPs of individuals were highly variable (3–99 %; mean 57 %). The discharge refill time (DRT) to refill 50 % of the earwig’s allomone reservoir was estimated at 13 h. A positive relationship in sulfide amounts with body weight was found only in females in 2009, suggesting metabolic cost tradeoffs were revealed when sulfide content was half that in 2010. This is the first report of insects releasing sulfur-containing compounds that may mimic carrion-fecal odors as a deceptive defense against vertebrate predators.

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Acknowledgments

I thank Le Anne Elhoff for technical assistance. Mention of trade names or commercial products in this article is solely for providing specific information and does not imply recommendation or endorsement by the US Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

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Data deposited in figshare repository: http://figshare.com/preview/_preview/1308556

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

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Correspondence to John A. Byers.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Byers, J.A. Earwigs (Labidura riparia) mimic rotting-flesh odor to deceive vertebrate predators. Sci Nat 102, 38 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-015-1288-1

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Keywords

  • Associative learning
  • Defensive allomones
  • Innate aversion
  • Mimicry
  • Predators
  • Vertebrate learning