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3 September 2014
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Life In The Undergrowth
David Attenborough with Giant African millipede

Life In The Undergrowth


 

And now for the insect horrors... The creepy crawly world of invertebrates


The giant bat-eating centipede is the most formidable invertebrate predator of all.

 

These highly aggressive creatures inhabit caves in Venezuela and can grow to 13 inches long.

 

They feed on bats by scaling vertical walls and capturing them while hanging upside down from the cave ceiling behaviour that has been filmed for the first time in Life In The Undergrowth.

 

The world's largest and perhaps most ferocious insect is the Titan beetle, a giant of the Amazonian basin, with fearsome jaws, powerful claws and an aggressive attitude. It can easily bite a pencil in half!

 

The larvae have never been found, although the BBC found evidence of their eating habits while filming holes in wood large enough for a grub a foot long and as thick as a man's wrist.

 

The larvae of fungus flies create a beautiful display, filling a cave in New Zealand with twinkling blue bio-luminescent lights. The effect is truly magical, but it is also sinister.

 

The glowing blobs hanging down from the roof of the cave attract flies and moths which become snared in the silk and make a ready meal for the larvae, which move along their lures to fetch their dinner.

 

The infamous redback spider of Australia has moved into areas where people live because the flat surfaces we create suit its unusual method of catching prey.

 

Life In The Undergrowth shows how these clever spiders make vertical threads down to the ground, ending in a blob of sticky glue.

 

When prey becomes stuck to these, they are 'pinged' up into the air by the taut silk lines, to be consumed by the spider at leisure.

 

Bumblebees may look cute and seem to be paragons of hard work for the good of the colony, but new research has revealed that the workers are far from passive do-gooders.

 

Instead, the colony is rife with tension. The queen bee eats the workers' eggs to retain her control over the colony.

 

Eventually, the worker bees (the queen bee's children) retaliate and kill their own queen.

 

Wood ants build huge nests and protect them with ferocious squirts of formic acid.

 

The hunter ants go out in search of food and, by working together, can tackle prey much bigger than them. They can easily slice right though a beetle's hard armour.

 

Matabele ants, on the other hand, take out their aggression on termites, launching regular Viking-like raids on neighbouring termite mounds.

 

They have a tactic for dealing with the termites that are in charge of protecting their home. They hold open their jaws and inject their stings into their mouths, paralysing the termites.

 

The human bot fly has a larval stage which feeds on live mammal flesh, including humans.

 

In South America, cattle are particularly vulnerable and the victims develop a boil in which a large maggot develops and feeds. When the maggot is ready to transform into a pupa, it emerges from the boil and drops to the ground.

 

Because the adult flies are large, their noisy approach is easily detected by cows and they risk being flicked off.

 

To make sure their eggs reach their target, the flies have evolved a sneaky way of evading detection. They capture a smaller fly, such as a house fly or mosquito, and lay their sticky eggs upon it before letting it go.

 

The house fly is much better at sneaking up on cows and landing on them and can therefore transport the bot fly eggs directly to their target.

 

The Asian Giant Honey Bee lives out in the open in colonies of up to 100,000 bees which hang on a single comb measuring over six feet across.

 

Their honey is much sought after by local people who risk life and limb to climb barefoot up into the trees during the night and cut the combs down.

 

At night the bees are relatively docile but, during the day, they can be lethal.

 

If a single bee decides to attack it will release an alarm pheromone which causes all the bees in all the colonies to launch a simultaneous and deadly attack on whoever is passing at the time. They have been known to chase a victim for over a mile.

 

An amazing thermal execution technique is used by honey bees in response to enemies such as hornets.

 

The workers crowd tightly around the hornet and shiver their thoracic muscles. This generates a large amount of heat inside the ball of bees and the hornet is literally fried alive.

 

Cotesia is a solitary 'parasitoid' wasp, one of a huge variety of species which are probably the inspiration behind Ridley Scott's Alien.

 

The wasp uses a special egg-laying tube to lay eggs in caterpillars. The caterpillars continue to develop, unaware that they have an alien species growing and feeding inside them.

 

When the wasp larvae reach a certain stage, up to 50 larvae simultaneously burst through the skin of the caterpillar, killing it instantly.

 

The larvae weave their own little golden cocoons which then hatch out as more Cotesia.

 

Insects carry the micro-organisms that are responsible for innumerable plant, animal and human diseases.

 

About one in six human beings alive is affected by an insect-borne illness of some kind. Malaria alone kills one person every 12 seconds and infects as many as 500 million people

 

The larvae of several fly species live and breed in the flesh-dissolving pitchers of carnivorous plants, where they feed on the organic soup and remains of the plant's victims.

 

There are also flies whose larvae develop only in the tracheal passages of red kangaroos and lice that live in the throat pouches of cormorants and pelicans.

 

Cockroaches produce defensive compounds which smell revolting and some can produce skin rashes and temporary blindness.

 

A number of species, such as the Florida Cockroach, are able to spray secretions over a distance of many centimetres.

 

Soldier termites are usually blind but are variously armed with large jaws or the ability to eject sticky secretions from a head gland.

 

In some species, the soldiers have peculiarly shaped asymmetric jaws designed for delivering powerful blows capable of dismembering ants at a single stroke.

 

Other species of termite have soldiers that are 'programmed' to explode, covering their enemies with sticky goo. This explosive defaecation is unique.



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