In the moist, mysterious rainforests of Central and South America, an extraordinary relationship exists between one species of pseudoscorpion and the handsome harlequin beetle. In search of a new home, as many as 54 pseudoscorpions take advantage of a visiting harlequin by sneaking aboard it’s back, hanging tight and riding it through the air as it begins to fly.
While it may sound cozy, the freeloading passengers of this living jumbo jet aren’t about to flick through a selection of in-flight movies. Far from it! What breaks out instead is a chaotic mix of war, cannabolism and sex. All while meters up in the air, on the back of a flying beetle.
Before Lift Off
These beast tamers go by the name of Cordylochernes scorpioides, and they’re a species of pseudoscorpion who live in the decomposing wood of fallen fig trees. And don’t be fooled – they’re very genetically different from scorpions. Most noticeable is their smaller size (just a few millimetres!) and lack of a stinging tail. Their weapon of choice instead are their pincers, which can release a small amount of venom, and they’ll use these to help them climb aboard a harlequin. By nipping at the poor beetle’s backside, it’ll accommodatingly bend downwards to form the perfect boarding gate.
The forced-to-oblige harlequin (Acrocinus longimanus), is a palm-sized, longhorn beetle with wonderfully symmetrical wing covers, swirled in earthy shades of green, orange and black. They too like to hang out on the logs of fallen fig trees, as the soft wood is the perfect place for them to meet a mate and lay their eggs.
The Harlequin beetles aren’t alone in their choice of a nursery – many insects reproduce here, making the decomposing log a full pantry for the pseudoscorpions. The bad news, is that decomposing logs don’t last forever and eventually the wood will completely rot away leaving the pseudoscorpions with no food, no shelter and no way of finding a new fig tree. Their genius solution is to relocate, by hitching a ride with a harlequin.
When one arrives they quickly hop on – anyone left behind will surely perish and because of this the competition on board is intense. Almost immediately war breaks out. If you’re a young nymph pseudoscorpion you really shouldn’t have bothered – you’ll be killed and eaten by the adults who have no objections to cannibalism. Even strong, adult males have a slim chance at surviving; it’s a fight to the death to win the mating rights of the females.
By the time the harlequin arrives at a newly fallen log, the weak are dead, the females are pregnant and we can only assume the harlequin is incredibly relieved to get them off its back. And for the lucky pseudoscorpions remaining, they’re now free to exploit the bounty of their new home.
It’s amazing to think that without their beetle airbus, the pseudoscorpions couldn’t survive. Their only evolved strategy at dispersing themselves to a new habitat is to take advantage of the wings someone else has evolved already. While it may sound like a raw deal for the harlequin, it does get a small cleaning service in return, with the pseudoscorpions eating any other stowaways who may be hitching a ride too. But for the chaotic scenes the harlequin has had to wittness, i’m not so sure it’s worth it.