The surreal treehoppers

Last week’s Nature highlighted the sculptures of Alfred Keller (1902-1955), and the example, a model of the Brazilian treehopper Bocydium globulare, struck me as one of the weirdest animals I’ve ever seen:

Martin Kemp describes Keller’s work:

Keller was trained as a kunstschmied, an ‘art blacksmith’. From 1930 until his early death he was employed by the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History), painstakingly labouring over his recreations of insects and their larvae. Each took a year to complete. Keller worked first in plasticine, from which he cast a model in plaster. This plaster reference model he then recast in papier maché. Some details he added, cast in wax, with wings and bristles in celluloid and galalith (an early plastic material used in jewellery). Finally he coloured the surfaces, sometimes with additional gilding. The levels of patience and manual control Keller exercised were incredible. His fly, for example, boasts 2,653 bristles.

. . . Keller was a sculptor of monumental one-off portraits. Each model is a masterpiece, with no effort spared. It is difficult to see how such a skilled artisan could survive in today’s museums, with their emphasis on cost analysis. Keller’s exacting models may be things of the past, yet they are far from obsolete. Like the great habitat dioramas, they exercise a magnetic attraction.

The first thing a biologist does on seeing a model like this is think, “This can’t be real,” and resorts to some Googling. Sure enough, it’s a real insect.  Here are two photos by Patrick Landmann (check out his other terrific nature photos):

The second thing one asks is, “What the bloody hell is all that ornamentation on the thorax?” (Note that the “balls” on the antenna-like structure aren’t eyes, but simply spheres of chitin.)  A first guess is that it’s a sexually-selected trait, but those are often limited to males, and these creatures (and the ones below) show the ornaments in both sexes.  Kemp hypothesizes—and this seems quite reasonable—that “the hollow globes, like the remarkable excrescences exhibited by other treehoppers, probably deter predators.”  It would be hard to grab, much less chow down on, a beast with all those spines and excrescences.

Note, though, that the ornament sports many bristles.  If these are sensory bristles, and not just deterrents to predation or irritating spines, then the ornament may have an unknown tactile function.

Membracids, related to cicadas, are in the class Insecta (insects, of course), the order Hemiptera (“true bugs”) and the family Membracidae.  Like aphids, which are also “true bugs,” adult and immature treehoppers feed on plant sap.

For a wonderful panoply of membracid photos, download this pdf file. Here are some of the images, showing that, as Kipling said, “The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandu.” If Dali invented insects, they’d look like these (all photos by Patrick Landmann):

The color and shape of this last one makes me suspect that it’s mimicking a wasp:

h/t: Matthew Cobb

57 Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Search your favourite news site for “squidworm.” Then, just for fun, look up a picture of Burgess animal Opabinia.

    • Jill
      Posted December 1, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      So I’m not the only person to immediately think of Opabinia on seeing the squidworm…

  2. Posted November 26, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    “Keller was trained as a kunstschmied, an ‘art blacksmith’.”

    Hhmm….I’ve always associated “black”smith with iron, as opposed to goldsmith, silversmith etc. “Kunstschmied” is a collective term for smiths where art is the main aspect (usually working with precious or semiprecious metals or at least with bronze) as opposed to a blacksmith, who makes horseshoes and whatnot.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted November 26, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Yes, as in ‘wordsmith’. So ‘Kunstschmied’ would be ‘artsmith’. But the meaning, according to the dictionary, is ‘wrought iron craftsman.’ And then, of course, there is also die Kunstschmiedin.

  3. Posted November 26, 2010 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Are those ornaments expandable? Do they break off when & if attacked by a predator, thus allowing the cicada to escape?

    • Dominic
      Posted November 26, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      They look like the ornaments would make it hard to swallow them. They resemble some other hemipterans – Cercopoidea – froghoppers, though the ones I know are hardly as exotic looking.

  4. Tulse
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    I’m amazed that such ornamentation provides a fitness advantage, as the energetic costs to make and haul them around must be very significant, and it’s hard to imagine they function better than something like simple spines.

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Without access to Nature at the moment, did any of his pre-war pieces survive 1945?

    Otherwise, for works of a kunstschmied in the dictionary sense, if you find yourself at the U of Pittsburgh, the Cathedral of Learning is filled with Samuel Yellin’s work. My favorite details are the deer/elk heads atop the huge gate by the elevators – each is different.

  6. Sachi Wilson
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Just too cool. Thanks Jerry!

  7. Posted November 26, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Those are some fantastic bugs. (Literally.)

    I wonder though if anyone else is annoyed at seeing that usage of “one-off” ever more frequently? Can anyone explain how that’s supposed to mean one *of* a kind?

    To me, “one off” means “one off the line.” That is, it’s a sample taken for statistical testing. This is the exact opposite of common usage, which I see as ever increasing. This disturbs me only slightly less than widespread magical thinking. Thank you.

    • Tulse
      Posted November 26, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      To me, “one off” means “one off the line.” That is, it’s a sample taken for statistical testing.

      I’ve never heard the term used in that way, and the common usage (“one of a kind”) seems to come from foundry work (in describing how many copies were to come “off” of a mould). The first usage of the specific term “one-off” in this sense dates to 1937.

      • Posted November 26, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        Thanks, Tulse, for the link. So it’s not as without basis as I thought. Still seems awkward but maybe it won’t annoy me so much henceforth. I still think it would be more sensible to say “one-of,” though.

        • Posted November 27, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink

          ‘one off’ is a common Australianism for one-of-a-kind. Interesting to see it spreading. The first time I used it in North America, I was asked to define it.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted November 26, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        I’m not english, but I’ve always understood “one off” as a unique product (well, off “of the line”, say), not a sample. I didn’t know it came from foundries specifically though, thanks!

    • J. Sheahan
      Posted November 30, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      Referring to Keller’s work,”one-off”is used in the sense of bespoke, custom-made, unique unto itself, one of a kind.

  8. TheBrummell
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    All of the individuals pictured are adults, with wings. This raises 2 questions
    1. How functional are those wings? I’m thinking those ornaments really screw up the aerodynamics, and these things can’t actually fly.
    2. What do the sub-adult stages look like? Hemiptera nymphs, from what I’ve seen, tend to look more-or-less like the adult, but without wings.

    Very cool, thanks for putting this up.

  9. MadScientist
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    It’s surprising how “this can’t be real” turns to “you can’t make this shit up”. The made up ones tend to resemble existing creatures – frequently (but not always) made up by people with pretty limited imaginations. Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (but I love the PNWTE).

    I know what the artists must feel like. I build instruments and people always want to rush things seemingly with no concern over quality of design and manufacture and usability.

  10. Posted November 26, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Some of those almost look like fungus fruiting bodies, is that a possibility? Presumably it’s not, although it looks like some of them are camouflaged to look like various vegetation structures.

    • Tristan
      Posted November 26, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      That was my thought, too – they look just like insects that have been overtaken and killed by Cordyceps fungi (see the wonderful Attenborough video at http://www.youtube.com/#/watch?v=scPOQC_Lpgo). Protective mimicry, perhaps?

      • Achrachno
        Posted November 26, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        The last one certainly looks like a wasp mimic in this view. I wonder if it’s solitary rather than herd-forming.

        The middle three do seem to have been selected to resemble plant bits. Membracids apparently spend a lot of time sitting on stems extracting sap and so are often very cryptic to human (and probably bird) eyes. Many look like leaves and some like thorns. They sometimes “spoil” their thorn mimicry by moving to the back side of the stem if you get too close. Thorns seldom do that.

        I wonder why the Bocydium couldn’t be playing some sort of camouflage game too? Where does it feed? Do the globular ornaments resemble buds, or something, on a plant host?

        In any event, the weird ornamentation should at least break up the “insect” outline of the thing and so might help hide it from visually hunting predators. Unless they turn specialist?

        Is the antlered sp. without the globules a close relative? I wonder how its habitat/host differs.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 26, 2010 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

          I wonder why the Bocydium couldn’t be playing some sort of camouflage game too? Where does it feed? Do the globular ornaments resemble buds, or something, on a plant host?

          Certainly appears that way, doesn’t it? Ooh, the co-evolutionary war is so riveting!

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 26, 2010 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

        Me three. How very cool!! And indeed a wonderful vid, Tristan.

        In addition to the more obvious mimicries of thorns, etc., some of the other bugs pictured could be mimicking tree sap and lichens…

        The odd one out seems to be the wasp-mimic. Though I will have to have a look at the pdf MC links to!

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 26, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

          (Though your link didn’t work for me–I found this and assume it’s what you posted, or quite similar:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKjBIBBAL8 )

          • Tristan
            Posted November 27, 2010 at 12:35 am | Permalink

            That’s the one – or at least, a slightly shortened version of it. Sorry, still haven’t mastered the art of sharing Youtube links from the iPhone.

    • David Dinwoodie
      Posted November 30, 2010 at 5:24 am | Permalink

      Is it possible that their appendages mimic something like the Cordyceps fungi, making them less appealing to predators?

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    The first thing a biologist does on seeing a model like this is think, “This can’t be real,”

    Isn’t that why they are called bugs, they can really bug you? (O.o)

  12. Posted November 26, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    It’s insects that remind me our ‘form’ is by no means evolutionary certain. Freaky stuff! Though I’m sure if theywere sapient they’d say the same about me.

    • Posted November 26, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      It also underlines the limitless diversity that so bugged Darwin. Why should an Intelligent Designer create so profligately? (In fact if we were really meant to be Lords of Creation, why create other life at all? Of course Bocydium globulare might say the same thing.)

  13. ambulocetacean
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    There’s a Discovery doco called Aliens of the Amazon that’s all about treehoppers. The explanation of teh evolutionz is terrible, but the bugs are awesome.

    Some of the treehoppers in the doco look exactly like insects killed by that fungus Tristan was talking about. They’re freaky.

    The doco also shows a female treehopper standing guard over her nymphs and chasing predatory insects away. Is that unusual for insects?

    • Posted December 1, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      not unusual. in fact i’ve a library book about it i must return:

      James T. Costa: “the other insect socieities”. it’s really thick and has over a 100 pages on all sorts of hemipterans.

  14. Diane G.
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Anyone else having trouble with the pdf link posted by the author? It has closed IE twice for me…

  15. Posted November 27, 2010 at 4:40 am | Permalink

    These creatures are, simply put, amazing!

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  16. Doc Bill
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Jerry, I needed some new nightmare material. Perhaps tonight I won’t be chased by Glenn Beck.

  17. Mad Maxine
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    These critters talk to each other also, so who knows–maybe sound enhancing gizmos? Genomic analysis will surely figure out some day what gene those structures are for. In the mean time:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5424426

  18. JohnnieCanuck
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    My first thought when I saw that last image (Heteronotus maculatus) was that it must have been lifted from a certain creationist coffee table book of fishing lures. Maybe this is life imitating art imitating life.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 17, 2013 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

      Good catch!

  19. Posted November 29, 2010 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    I still find it hard to believe that they are real but, after some researched I have to admit that they are truth. Amazing.

    • ramsina
      Posted December 1, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      is that so ? hard to believe..

  20. Laura Grunwerg
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    The traditional blacksmith, which we associate with horse shoeing, is called a “farrier.” There are also “ornamental blacksmiths” who use the same forge and tools to make gates, staircases, weather vanes, fences, and all manner of decorative garden and yard objects. Some incorporate other metals into their work (brass, copper, bronze, titanium, gold).

  21. Posted November 29, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I wonder whether these ornamentations aid in balance during these insect’s amazing jumps. Or at least were first selected for stability issues, then subsequently selected for species recognition.

  22. jo hyun
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    good!

  23. ramsina
    Posted December 1, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    omg its disgusting :-&

  24. William Jordan
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    When I was a graduate student in entomology back in the 60s and early 70s, there was a display case in front of the departmental office filled with all manner of incredible insects. Privately, we called them our “Jesus Christ” bugs. People from the outside would come in, take one look, and go “Jesus Christ !!”

  25. Posted December 2, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    With the bristles on the globes . . . I too wondered if they could be related to sensing sound . . . kind of inside out ears.

    I have never seen such insects before. There are so many apparently peculiar life-forms which are either too small to see or which live in places we can’t easily reach, it is frustrating. I feel I am missing out horribly in that by the time I die I will have seen hardly anything.

    Lucy

  26. gojackson
    Posted December 3, 2010 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    it appears to be the Divine artwork of God to me..

  27. russll
    Posted December 12, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m beginning to think insects may have evolved from plants somehow

  28. Nathan
    Posted January 12, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Concerning the bristled globes on top, they remind me of a piece of military hardware that can detect the source and trajectory of bullets. That hardware is shaped very much like one of the bristled globes. I wonder if it is, in fact, a sensory organ.

  29. Andrew
    Posted March 1, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    I propose that the hollow chitin globes are resonating chambers for audio location and broadcasting.

  30. nicteis
    Posted July 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    The May 5th Nature had a cover article on treehoppers. Careful anatomical and embryological study of the beauties appears to disclose that their helmets are really alterations of a pair of wings, suppressed in the first thoracic segment in all other insects for hundreds of millions of years.

  31. markfiend
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    I found that someone has made an origami model of this crazy insect: http://www.giladorigami.com/PG_OUSA2008_EXN_Horiguchi.html

  32. maricel
    Posted March 21, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Can anyone help me to identify an insect that lived in my garden last year? I grow morning glory every year and I keep constantly checking for insects that harm it. I saw something that resembled poop, here and there. I discover that there was a triangular pattern of it in different sizes. I wore glasses and touched that excrescence and goodness! It lifted up the ‘poop’ disguise to show a ‘naked’ soft insect, long and plump. I haven’t being able to find it anywhere. Thanks. MaricelLovesInsects

  33. Andreas Schmidt Mumm
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    “The first thing a biologist does on seeing a model like this is think, “This can’t be real,” and resorts to some Googling.”
    That’s exactly what I did and how I got here. I simply could not believe that this “thing” was for real. However, with this one I am going full head creationist! This was designed one day when the Allmighty had a few kids over and they were all playing with “life playdo” and He said “who can come up with the weirdest animal gets a free galaxy on a necklace!” This treehopper is the one that won! The winner was a little three year old called Zaphod.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 17, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

      +42

  34. Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    It doesn’t get more weird or beautiful than those!!

  35. Edin
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on edi(n)fying.

  36. Andreea
    Posted July 17, 2013 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    It looks like they’re meant for camouflage… The second insect looks like a tree branch, third one like a peanut, 4th one like some sort of dried/dead lief or branch, last one like some wasp or so.

    Perhaps the first one just looks like some spiky round black plant? This one perhaps?

    http://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/species/galium/pilosum/

    (I just Googled for a couple of minutes, it looks similar. I don’t know anything about it, e.g. I didn’t check if it can be found in the same region as the bug?…) What do you think??

  37. Daoud Hammoudeh
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    Could it be that the reason for those balls are only for camouflage purposes only? Since these insects live on trees it’s logical to presume that these balls are mimics of fruit.


46 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Alfred Keller and Treehoppers Last week Nature released an article on Alfred Keller, the insect artist that once worked for Berlin’s natural history museum, the Museum für Naturkunde. I don’t have (free) access to this article, but get a glimpse of this amazing craftsman’s work at Why Evolution Is True. [...]

  2. [...] Last week Nature released an article on Alfred Keller, the insect artist that once worked for Berlin’s natural history museum, the Museum für Naturkunde. I don’t have (free) access to this article, but get a glimpse of this amazing craftsman’s work at Why Evolution Is True. [...]

  3. [...] [...]

  4. [...] by chris on November 27, 2010 The surreal treehoppers « Why Evolution Is Tru&#… [...]

  5. [...] Berlín haciendo esculturas a escala de insectos. Aquí está su escultura del Bocydium Globulare:Why Evolution is Real: The surreal treehoppersLos demás enlaces, a continuación: The surreal treehoppersImpresionante.An infection of mental [...]

  6. [...] realmente estes bichos existen, a fotografía que aquí puxen corresponde a unha escultura de Arthur Keller para o Museo de Historia Natural de Berlín This entry was posted in Hemiptera, Membracidae. [...]

  7. [...] [...]

  8. [...] The Surreal Treehoppers // via BoingBoing. November 29, 2010 Tags: design // [...]

  9. [...] The surreal treehoppers [...]

  10. [...] Read more at Why Evolution Is True [...]

  11. [...] More pix and the full article by  ecologist Jerry A Coyne here. [...]

  12. [...] [...]

  13. [...] Coyne has a great post up about the absurd dorsal ornamentation of tropical tree hoppers, complete with many great photographs of their hard-to-believe [...]

  14. [...] Você já viu algum desses por aí, leitor? Nos responda nos comentários! [Why Evolution is True] [...]

  15. [...] via  The surreal treehoppers « Why Evolution Is True. [...]

  16. [...] Why Evolution Is True har samlat ett antal bilder på en familj insekter som på svenska kallas puckelstritar, membracidae, med helt osannolika utväxter på huvudet. Puckelstritarna är vegetarianer som lever i träd och forskarna har inte funnit någon annan funktion för huvudprydnaderna än att de möjligen kan avskräcka andra djur från att försöka äta upp bäraren. Författaren av artikeln jämför de här insekterna med något som Dali skulle kunna ha målat och de olika arterna överträffar varandra i fantasifull och bisarr estetik. Missa inte länken till pdf:en som innehåller fler bilder. Dela: [...]

  17. [...] fonte, fonte, [...]

  18. [...] Fuente [...]

  19. [...] The first thing a biologist does on seeing a model like this is think, “This can’t be real,” and resorts to some Googling. —Matthew Cobb, whyevolutionistrue [...]

  20. [...] David Thompson, The Surreal Treehoppers: photos and discussion of crazy little insects. No spiders, [...]

  21. [...] Quelle: Why the evolution is true [...]

  22. [...] Live Journal via Mark Shea, originally at Why Evolution is True (Jerry Coyne’s site), we have the Brazilian Treehopper, also this model [...]

  23. [...] The Surreal Treehoppers – We really don’t need to look very far to find seriously alien-looking life. [...]

  24. [...] Brazilian treehopper is possibly the most bizarre-looking creature I’ve ever [...]

  25. [...] Brazilian treehopper is possibly the most bizarre-looking creature I’ve ever [...]

  26. [...] Prud’homme & Gompel Lab, IBDML Carroll Laboratory, University of Wisconsin The Surreal Treehoppers Grundbauplan der [...]

  27. [...] proved to be the most linked-to post I’ve ever made.  At any rate, go back for a second and look at some of those things.   Here are some more, taken from a new paper in Nature by Benjamin Prud’homme et al. [...]

  28. [...] http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/11/26/the-surreal-treehoppers/ [...]

  29. [...] wings from ancient evolution. But what they are for is mostly unknown. (more pictures are here, and here) Treehopper – Heteronotus [...]

  30. [...] can also check out this blog post on wordpress that addresses the treehopper [...]

  31. [...] Why evolution is true. [...]

  32. [...] can find more information and even crazier looking members of this group here. Posted in Bugs | Tagged Amazon, bug adaptation, Membracidae, mimicry, Peru, spikes, [...]

  33. [...] http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/11/26/the-surreal-treehoppers/ [...]

  34. [...] Treehoppers are just incredible. [...]

  35. [...] Source: patricklandmann.com  /  via: whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com [...]

  36. [...] crafted model, created by legendary science sculptor Alfred Keller (1902—1955). Over on Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne reflects on a 2010 Nature profile on Keller (warning: paywall), his sculptures, [...]

  37. [...] See full story on wordpress.com [...]

  38. [...] much ensured I’m never visiting Brazil. You can learn more about these bizarre creatures here, plus find more weird pictures. You’re [...]

  39. [...] crafted model, created by legendary science sculptor Alfred Keller (1902—1955). Over on Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne reflects on a 2010 Nature profile on Keller (warning: paywall), his sculptures, [...]

  40. [...] (Fonte da imagem: Reprodução/Why Evolution is True) [...]

  41. [...] Why Evolution Is True. Many more extraoridinary images can be [...]

  42. [...] Source: patricklandmann.com  /  via: whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com [...]

  43. […] more on this insect at Why Evolution is True and i09. My reading suggests there is no confirmed function attributed to the structure. I’m also […]

  44. […] Fonte: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/11/26/the-surreal-treehoppers/ […]

  45. […] Fascinating treehoppers […]

  46. […] The Surreal Treehoppers // via […]

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