Desert Food Chain - part 12

To humans, “insects space the destroyers,” said Carl Olsen in Insects that the Southwest, which that co-authored v Floyd Werner, “but come Nature, they are the recyclers, the reworkers and also the designers,” terms that, in effect, serve as definitions of roles they beat in the food chain. “They’ve been at this game of survival much longer than human being beings, and they’ve for sure succeeded.”


So, What is one Insect, Anyway?

As in the rest of the world, the insects of our deserts belong come the invertebrate division of the pet Kingdom. They selection from near-microscopic in size to several inches in length. Unlike a vertebrate, which has an articulated internal skeleton, pest has an articulated external skeleton that encases that “eyes, mouthparts, antennae, body, legs, and also fore and also hind sections of the cradle tract, and also some respiratory tract surfaces,” according to Barbara Terkanian’s “A Vertebrate Looks in ~ Arthropods,” published in the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum publication A Natural background of the Sonoran Desert.

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The insect has a distinctive head, a thorax and also an abdomen. The comes equipped with three pairs of legs and also two bag of wings, through one pair that wings periodically modified through advancement to offer a purpose various other than flight. Insects, the just invertebrates that have the right to fly, “must have considerable respiratory equipment to supply amounts of oxygen to trip muscles sophisticated nervous solution to coordinate rapid flight responses,” according to Terkanian. Fossilized evidence of their classical times lies embedded in stones numerous millions of year old.

our Insect population

In ours Chihuahuan, Sonoran and also Mojave Deserts, as in the other lands that the world, the insect population accounts for an ext species 보다 all the other pet groups combined. In our deserts, the insects make up well end 10,000 varieties that have actually been described, most likely with together many an ext awaiting description. Worldwide, millions of types may quiet await description.

During the summer, we might be “overwhelmed by their abundance,” claimed S. W. Frost in his Insect Life and Insect herbal History. some insects “cut leaves, roots, or stems right into shreds, some assault meat, some feed on filth, some fly with the air with a buzzing sound, part sing monotonous songs, and some even press their beaks relentlessly right into our tender skin.”

Insects have the capacity to give birth prodigously. Because that instance, a single queen termite, among the most prolific that insects, may lay millions of eggs, said Frost.


One scientist, follow to Frost, “figured that a pair that flies beginning in April can be the progenitors, if all were to live, that 191,010,000,000,000,000,000 individuals by August. Enabling 1/8 cubic customs per fly, there would be enough of them to cover the earth 47 feet deep.” Fortunately, over there “are numerous adverse conditions, parasitic and also predacious enemies that prevent such things from happening and thus this insects are organized in check.”

Theoretically, a solitary pair the romantically skinny Pomace Flies, acting together the Adam and Eve of your species, could yield sufficient descendants in ~ a year to “form a sphere 96 million miles in diameter!” follow to Donald J. Borror and Richard E. White in their publication A field Guide to the Insects the America north of Mexico. the is based on the assumption that friend would fill 1000 flies into every cubic inch within the ball. (The typical distance from planet to the Sun, incidentally, is 93 million miles, three million miles much less than the diameter that the ball.) happily for the actual Adam and Eve and also their descendants, Pomace Flies, like other insects, confront many “enemies, adverse eco-friendly conditions, and also the like” that store them in check.

By any measure, the insects beat a an effective role, through the food chains, in shaping our deserts.


A couple of Examples the Desert Insects

The insects have evolved as herbivores, carnivores and omnivores, v some types highly devoted and others quite generalised in their options of foods. “Small animals,” claimed Terkanian, “can manipulate habitats more totally than huge ones. A solitary plant may be a meal to a vertebrate, but to arthropods it deserve to be a universe. One types might finish larval advance in a flower bud, while another species spends its entire life feeding top top the woody stems. A huge plant favor the saguaro deserve to support an entire community…” A small sampling of the varied insects common to our deserts incorporate beetles, grasshoppers, ants, bees and also butterflies.


“Beetles,” stated Arthur V. Evans in his write-up on those insects in A Natural history of the Sonoran Desert, “comprise the largest group of insects on earth, representing one-quarter of every living organisms and one-third of all animals…” Beetles “are nearly everywhere and feed on every sorts that plant and also animal materials,” claimed Borror and White. “They are numerous on vegetation; they take place under bark, stones, and other objects; numerous are found on or in the ground, in fungi, rotting vegetation, dung, and also carrion. Some space aquatic. A few are parasites of various other animals.”

The beetle’s exoskeleton, which may be extended with spines or through a waxy coating, protects the insect’s head, thorax and abdomen. Its leathery front wings, which nearly always meet in a straight line down the center of the insect’s back, stated Borror and also White, offer to protect the membranous hind, or flight, wings. In our deserts, the beetles range in dimension from a small fraction of an inch to numerous inches in length.

The desert beetles have developed a variety of adaptations and also behaviors for surviving heat, drought and also predators. Their thick exoskeletons, because that instance, aid minimize water loss. They have actually beneath your forewings, follow to Evans, cavities because that trapping moisture that would certainly otherwise be shed through respiration. Part bury us deep in cooling sand during hot summer days. Faced by an enemy, some types exude a foul fluid from your abdomens. Others simply mimic species that exude a foul liquid. Some uncover refuge and protection in the thorny embrace of cacti.

“Beetles,” together the san Diego Zoo states on it web site, “eat virtually everything: plants, various other insects, carcasses, and also dung. Some beetles life in water eat fish and also tadpoles; eats snails. Most beetles have a very an excellent sense of smell to assist them uncover food. A beetle’s front jaws, referred to as mandibles, vary in size and also shape relying on the species. Predatory beetles have extended mandibles that can seize, cut, or to like prey. Committed nectar feeders have actually tube-like mouthparts.”

The showy large metallic environment-friendly Fig Beetle “plays one active role in the decomposition of plant materials,” according to Evans. The adults feed on soft fruits and also sap-oozing mesquite tree wounds. The larvae feeding on organic material in compost and dung.

Adults and also larvae of various species of the orange and black-spotted ladybird beetles, smaller sized than a pea, food on the devastating plant-feeders such as aphids and scale insects. Charming as they may be in the literature of our children, the ladybird beetles actually smell bad and also taste worse, features that discourage predators.

Adult tiger beetles, metallic-colored miniature Sherman tanks that insects with an effective sickle-like jaws, move swiftly and also athletically to prey ferociously on various other insects and also on spiders. Also their larva ambush food at the mouths that the beetles’ burrows. Vice versa, they autumn prey to assorted carnivorous insects and birds and mammals.


Grasshoppers, said Goggy Davidowitz in A Natural history of the Sonoran Desert, “can leap well over 20 times your body length… many of the kinetic energy to perform this comes not from the muscles, however from

the semilunar crescent located in the knee that the hind leg. This crescent-shaped body organ is do of elastic fibers that store power in ready for a jump; they release this power explosively, propelling the grasshopper forward countless times its body length.”

In enhancement to its an effective hind legs, the grasshopper is especially identified by the hind wings. The (along v its closestly insect relatives) has, follow to wilhelm Atherton DuPuy, Our Insect Friends and Foes, “a hard shell-like wing on top, of small use in flying, and also underneath the the really reliable wing all folded increase in straight lines for every the world like my lady’s fan. These room the just insects in all the human being that wrinkles their wings this way.”

The varieties generally called “Desert Grasshoppers” have emerged a inexplicable adaptation come the desert environment. “On cool mornings,” stated Werner and also Olson, “they have the right to be seen sitting perpendicular come the sun, obviously capturing as many rays as they can. Through mid-day their orientation is parallel come the sun, so the they gain minimum heating.”

Davidowitz claims that most “…grasshoppers room generalist feeders, eat plants from very broad selection of families.” Some types may eat their to fill of a solitary plant organize then switch to one more host. Other species may nibble ~ above one plant climate switch conveniently to another. In one exception, the green, perfectly camouflaged Creosotebush Grasshopper feeds just on the tree that gives it its name. This is the only example of more than 8000 grasshopper species an international that eats but a single plant species. One more exceptional desert grasshopper is the omnivorous levels Lubber, which eats not only a range of tree but also eats various other grasshoppers and also other insects.

Grasshoppers additionally hold, because that insects, one unusual distinction in the food chain due to the fact that they have actually served as an essential food resource for the person species, including not only some indians of our deserts, but likewise some individuals of north Africa, south Africa, the Red Sea, Iraq, China, the Philippines, Australia and the West Indies, according to DuPuy.

In some areas of the world, grasshoppers reach plague proportions. In its web site, the Kansas State Historical culture tells the the historical plague the grasshoppers in 1874: “In so late July they came without warning in swarms so big they blocked out the sun and sounded choose a rainstorm. As soon as a swarm landed, the omnivorous pests carried near complete destruction. Crops were eaten out of the ground, and the structure from live sheep and also clothing turn off people’s backs. Paper, tree bark and also even wooden tool handles to be devoured.”



We sometimes describe a gregarious human as a “social butterfly,” however it is the humble ant, a close relative of the wasp, that could make a far better comparison. The ranks close to the top of the pecking order of social insects. An created ant colony, ensconced in intricate subterranean catacombs, features like a highly organized and also structured neighborhood of thousands of fastidious, strictly law-abiding, six-legged, citizens.

A queen, which might live for an ext than two decades according to Diana E. Wheeler and Steven W. Rissing, A Natural history of the Sonoran Desert, reigns over her ant kingdom, had tendency by courtiers and retainers. She lays the egg that provide rise to brand-new generations, which emerge and take flight once a year come establish new colonies. The flights usually occur just after a rainfall. Females – the workers in the world of ants – construct committed chambers, tend larvae, keep house, defend the colony and collect and even progressive food. Male ants – little and spoiled weaklings compared with the queen and the worker ants – appear only throughout the period of flight. Lock mate through prospective new queens, moving a lifetime supply that ant sperm, then having actually fulfilled their organic role, lock die. Only a small fraction of one percent the the would-be queens survive come found brand-new colonies. “If ten percent the those that begin out started colonies,” DuPuy said, “the people would quickly be overrun v ants.”

Like the various other insects, the ants’ bodies have three parts: a unique head, a thorax and an abdomen (or gaster). They have actually wings at the moment they take flight, yet they melted them as soon as they create a brand-new colony. Depending on the species, the ant might sting or bite, through various species able come inflict a painful wound.

The ants take it refuge from the desert’s surface ar in your cooler and much more humid underground chambers, a practice that also brings crucial benefits to the desert through its frequent shallow caliche subsurface. Indeed, ants offer as “the main soil-workers in the Southwest…” follow to Werner and Olson. “Their nest-making…aerates the soil, helps retain floor moisture or drainage, and fertilizes and also distributes numerous native plants.” Meanwhile, ants attach desert food chains with each other in varied and, sometimes, strange ways.

Seed harvester ants, which encompass one species that can supply what Wheeler and Rissing speak to an “unforgettable sting,” clear the ground instantly surrounding the opened to their colony, and also they wear long-term trails the radiate away from the clearing. Lock harvest the seeds primarily of grasses and annual, or ephemeral, plants, storing lock within your nests, in chambers “toward the top…where dry problems discourage germination.” The harvester ants also eat other insects, stated Werner and also Olson.

Leafcutter Ants, which have spiny bodies, excavate large, radiating nests made conspicuous top top the surface by “very symmetrical mounds of corpuscle of new soil, an ext or less like volcano cinder cones…” said Werner and also Olson. These ants take reduced leaves from plenty of different plant species. They carry the snippings to your nests. Lock chew the sheet material into a mulch, which castle use, prefer farmers, to raise a fungus that serves as food because that the colony.

The ferocious army ants, nomadic raiders, perform not make nests. Rather, castle commandeer momentary residences in rodent burrows or tree roots, say Wheeler and also Rissing. Hunting by night, they prey on various other ants and also on termites, plundering colonies like the Vikings once looted the negotiations of Britain. Army ants additionally feed on various other insects and even ~ above spiders and also scorpions.



If ants space the quintessential society animals, most desert bees room resolute loners, back they regularly take increase residence in bee-friendly neighborhoods. Typically, follow to Stephen L. Buchmann, A Natural background of the Sonoran Desert, a female punishment excavates a an individual burrow a few inches to six feet deep in desert sand. She lines her burrow with cells, i beg your pardon she waterproofs through a waxy cheap from abdominal muscle glands. She provisions each cell with pollen and nectar. She lays an egg in each cell. Satisfied the her work is complete, she then abandons the burrow, leaving she progeny to change for themselves for the rest of their lives.

Other desert bees, rather than digging burrows, move into abandoned tunnels left in dead trees by wood-boring beetles, and they fashion their cells from leaf clippings, small pebbles and mud. A few bees, prefer their relatives, the ants, follow a social life style. There are also native parasitic bees, which, follow to Walter Ebeling, university of California Riverside’s city Entomology internet site, co-opt the provisioned nests of harder working bee species, and also they put eggs the hatch early and feed top top the prepared supply the pollen and nectar and even on the larvae the the do not want host.

Bees, prefer the various other insects, have actually three human body parts: head, thorax and also abdomen. Lock “resemble part wasps, other than that bees are usually hairier and much more robust,” claimed Buchmann, “and castle possess devoted structures for transferring pollen back to your nests.” together Borror and White said, “Pollen sticks come the bee’s body hairs once the punishment visits a flower and is regularly combed off and placed top top the hind tibiae .” Some varieties have long tongues, others, brief tongues, mirroring the depth the blooms which castle visit in their pursuits for pollen and nectar. Female bees come equipped with a stinger, in reality a amendment egg-laying tube, claims Buchmann. The desert bees range in dimension from a fraction of an inch to much more than an customs in length. The Sonoran Desert’s Perdita minima bee, at eight hundredths of an inch in length, is the smallest punishment in the world.

Bees organize a special location in the desert food chains. Mostly dependent top top flowers, bees visit blooms like connoisseurs attending alcohol tastings. According to the Earth-Life internet Production internet site, part bees deign to visit just a single species that flower. Rather visit however a few species. Some bees favor flowers that one color over another, maybe like some people prefer red wine over white. Some bees note flowers through a short-lived repellent, a reminder not to try that details bloom again. Quiet others, presumably the punishment lowbrows, visit many species indiscriminately.

Buchmann said, “By relocating pollen about from flower to flower and plant come plant, bees perform critical and frequently unappreciated functions as the most important group that pollinating pets on earth…”

For example, “Of the roughly 640 flowering plant taxa growing in the Tucson hills near the Desert Museum, roughly 80 percent that these varieties have flowers adapted for and also pollinated by bees…

“Without the pollination services bees provide, numerous plants would not create seed-laden fruit from which the following generation the plants would grow. There is no bees, there would certainly be couple of or no fleshy berry or fruits to sustain birds, mammals, and other wildlife. The tunneling task of bees aerates the floor and permits water from infrequent rain to conveniently penetrate and reach plant roots; and also bees’ nitrogen-rich feces fertilize the soil. The bees themselves often provide food because that lizards, mammals, birds, insects, spiders, and other arachnids.”

Thousands of types of bees populate ours deserts that the Southwest, v the area around Tucson having perhaps the most diverse ar of these insects in the world.



Our deserts’ butterfly population, winged lyrics with hundreds of species, bring distinctive dimensions of mystery, color, daintiness and wanderlust come the civilization of the insects. It is the butterfly the enters the pupa, or chrysalis, phase of its life together a modest caterpillar and also emerges together colorful, winged fairy-like creature. One species, the Painted Lady, has established itself throughout lot of the world, consisting of North America, Africa, Asia and Europe. In one of nature’s true spectacles, one more species, the Monarch, migrates annually by the tens of millions for countless miles, with some wintering along California’s main and southern coastlines and also others wintering in main Mexico’s mountain forestlands.

While the butterfly, choose all the insects, has actually a head, thorax and abdomen, the (like a moth) is most distinguished by that wings, “which are covered with hundreds of tiny overlapping scales, lot like tiles ~ above a roof,” said Richard A. Bailowitz and also Mark P. Sitter in A Natural background of the Sonoran Desert. Each scale is one color, but collectively a butterfly’s shade pattern is produced by a facility mixture of in different ways colored scales.” (You deserve to usually differentiate between a butterfly and also a moth due to the fact that a resting butterfly holds its wing vertically and also a resting moth stop its wing horizontally.)

Compared with countless other insects, the butterfly poses small threat to economically important plants. “In short,” said Bailowitz and also Sitter, “butterflies space benign, aesthetically pleasing faunal members.” castle are however important components of the food chain. The caterpillars usually feed top top the plants wherein they flower from eggs. Painted Lady caterpillars, because that instance, eat the pipeline of thistles. King caterpillars eat the leaves of milkweeds. The adult butterfly serves as vital pollinator as it flies from bloom come bloom, seeking nectar. Caterpillars and also adults serve as food for various other insects and for birds and small mammals.

One that the most spectacular that the butterflies in the Southwest is th yellow and also brown large Swallowtail, which has actually a wingspan that some 4 inches, according to Werner and Olson. “…it is the biggest insect most civilization will ever see in the wild.”

The slightly smaller sized Pipevine Swallowtail, with iridescent blue wings punctuated with orange spots, prices high among the most beautiful the the butterflies, yet it can also be deadly. “These butterflies are extremely poisonous and also distasteful, even to birds,” stated Werner and also Olson. “The distinctive shade identifies the butterfly together something not fit to eat for any kind of bird that has actually tried one before and learned the difficult way.” The insect bring away its poison from the Pipevine plant, the food that the caterpillar.

According come Bailowitz and also Sitter, some of the other usual butterfly family members of the desert include: Brush-footed Butterflies, commonly orange and brown medium-size types that include the Monarch; Whites and also Sulphurs, medium to small white, yellow or orange butterflies that show up in at an early stage spring; and Gossamer Wings, diminutive, often bronze-colored butterflies that look like as though they have actually been crafted by a understand jeweler.

Insect Fascination

Insects and their relationships with various other organisms have actually held a fascination for the human species for millennia.

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In book 11 that his monumental Natural History, the roman author, Pliny the Elder (23 come 79 AD), stated of the insects: “…in no among her works has Nature more fully displayed she exhaustless ingenuity.”

In 1733, Johnathan Swift, in his On Poetry: A Rhapsody, wrote:

So Nat"ralists observe, a Flea

Hath smaller Fleas that on that prey,

And these have actually smaller Fleas come bite" em

And therefore proceed advertisement infinitum.

In the 19th century, one unknown author, possibly Oliver Wendell Holmes, parodying Swift, wrote:

Big bugs have little bugs Upon their backs come bite them. And small bugs have actually littler bugs, And advertisement infinitum.

Before his fatality in 1992, naturalist Floyd Werner wrote, in Insects the the Southwest, “My background is as a naturalist, and my proceeding interest is in the development and use of category of insects. Diversity fascinates me. The Southwest has actually a concentration that diversity that is unbeatable in the unified States. Therefore this has come to be my favored home.”

Next The Ugly, the Uglier and the Ugliest

By Jay W. Sharp

table of contents

Part 1 Desert Food chain - Introduction component 2 Desert Food chain - The Producers component 3 Desert Food chain - The Cacti: A Thorny Feast component 4 Desert Food chain - The Yuccas part 5 Desert Food chain - The Agave part 6 Desert Food chain - Desert Grasslands component 7 Desert Food chain - Desert Shrubs component 8 Desert Food chain - The yearly forbs component 9 Desert Food chain - Mavericks of the Desert tree part 10 Desert Food chain - Outlaw desert plants part 11 Desert Food chain - Animals: The Consumers part 12 Desest Food chain - The Insects component 13 Desest Food chain - The Ugly, the Uglier and the Ugliest