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How cockroaches fend off wasps that turn their victims into zombies

Real life battles against zombie makers offer many tips to avoid undead. Just ask cockroaches, targets the Emerald Jewel wasp.

The female wasps ( Ampulex compressa ) specialize in the attack on the American cockroach ( Periplaneta americana ). If a wasp succeeds, it leads an undisturbed roach away like a dog on a leash by simply pulling on a pothead antenna. Then she lays an egg on the roach and buries the insect as live meat for a wasp larva. Although a normal cockroach could dig up, there is no indication that the wasp stingy can even try.

In the cockroaches, the wasp is "a committed, goal-oriented, skilful parasitoid for your brain," says neurobiologist Kenneth Catania at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He recently created an impressive collection of slo-mo attack videos that give a first glimpse into the defense of some cockroaches.

To avoid leash running to the grave, vigilance was essential. In 28 of 55 attacks Catania had taken in a limited laboratory space, cockroaches did not seem to notice the threat quickly. Their attackers only needed about eleven seconds on average to get closer and to conquer.

Zombie, Two Steps

A small Emerald Jewel wasp needs just two stitches to turn an American cockroach into walking, resilient meat. First, the wasp grasps the edge of a shield that covers the neck of the roach (left), and gives a sting that paralyzes the front legs of the roach. Then the wasp bends its body around to transport a thorn through the neck into the roach's brain (right). The roach can only go when the wasp triggers the movement by pulling a roach antenna.

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More vigilant cockroaches fought off, however, and seventeen managed to halt the wasp for a full three minutes, classifying Catania as a success story from October 31 Brain, Behavior and Evolution In the wild, a jewel wasp would probably give up after such a fierce battle, otherwise the cockroach would manage to run away.

It's not a pure interest that drives such research forward: "Lately There is great interest in the jewel wasp, and for good reason, "says Coby scarf, chemical ecologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who investigates other aspects of the behavior of roach and the cockroaches are relatively large and easy to experiment with investigate how brain and nerve behavior develops.

The attacking wasp needs victims whose nervous system is still good enough to move n, otherwise the little jewel wasp would never be able to turn an entire r to an egg chamber. Every wasp needs live roach meat to start life, so the evolutionary powers that are used to attack wasps are extreme, says Catania. The Jewel wasp has developed an attack that suppresses a roach with only two precise stitches.

At the first sting a wasp jumps and grabs the small shield over the neck of the roach. Within half a second, the wasp is positioned to provide a sting that paralyzes the front legs and renders them useless for defense. The wasp flexes its belly and quickly feels its way to the soft tissues of the larynx. The sting itself carries sensors and pierces the neck to poison the brain of the cockroach.

Cockroaches usually begin to brush, possibly as a side effect of the poison. The wasp does not have to do anything else. The cockroach "sits there and does not run away from this truly terrifying creature, which ultimately makes it eaten alive," says Catania. It does not resist when the wasp bites half an antenna and drinks the insect version of blood.

ZOMBIE MOVIE The most detailed study yet of fighting women who produce zombies Jewel wasps show what happens when you target an American cockroach.

In Catania's experiments, happy cockroaches noticed an approaching wasp. Her first effective defensive move was what he calls the "stilt walker". It's "almost like a barbed wire fence," he says. While the plastic Halloween cockroaches that Catania bought for his own kitchen have misleadingly smooth legs, real cheeky legs are sensitive and have bristles with spikes that can sting a wasp.

In another strong movement in which the fight continues, a roach can turn and kick the wasp repeatedly in the head with one of its hind legs. A cockroach leg is not built for a straight kick, so the insect wiggles its leg a bit like a baseball bat. Adolescent cockroaches do not have a big chance in the lab, but a mature adult.

These details of the cockroach defense now open up a series of research questions, such as demonstrating the different evolutionary loads of defense and attacks. For some (perhaps) practical advice, when fictional zombie creators jump off a movie screen, Catania offers: "Protect Your Neck." But such advice is a bit too late for him. His Halloween costume this year? Zombie, of course.

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