Forget dog-eat-dog world; for some smaller critters like the leaf-footed insect, it’s a bug-wrestle-bug world.
Leaf-footed bugs are a family of insects with an estimated 2,000 species worldwide, most of which are located in tropical climates. True to their names, these bugs have back legs that resemble a scalloped leaf. But they are anything but dainty; these leaflike legs are used as powerful weapons during courtship rituals and territorial defense, says Christine Miller, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Florida.
“Males will set up territories on a valuable food source or will guard a group of females, and to do so they need to keep other males away,” says Miller.
That’s where those back legs come in. (See the spider that looks like a leaf.)
“It’s fun to watch them fight,” she says. “Sometimes they just kick each other, sometimes they back up to each other and lock legs, squeezing. They compete until one of the males is exhausted and takes off.”
The battles can last anywhere from a couple of minutes to a few hours, Miller adds. But unlike humans, they don’t fight to the death.
And as Miller points out, there are many species of animals that fight over potential mates, yet there are some fascinating characteristics that set this family of bugs apart, including the nature of the fights themselves. Battling end-to-end with hind legs as a weapon is not a typical method of conflict.
It’s also noteworthy that, among the 2,000 species of this insect, there is considerable diversity in the leg weapons. Some species have huge femurs with prominent spines, some have huge tibiae, and others have normal-size legs. (Devil frog vomits up new species of ant.)
Miller studies the insects in Florida, where at least nine species live. Some are considered minor pests of agricultural crops, from fruit to grains. The bugs give Miller’s team an opportunity to learn about the influence of behavior on evolution.
She likens studying leaf-footed bugs and the evolutions of their body shapes and weapons to MMA fighting or WWF matches. Only instead of fighting in rings or cages, the bugs must navigate through dense forests. Those legs that best help them get an advantage over rival males tend to get passed down to their offspring.
Studying the bugs can help scientists “further human knowledge of why animals do what they do,” says Miller.