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a wasp as small as an amoeba
December 1, 2011 2:58 PM   Subscribe

How fairy wasps cope with being smaller than amoebas. They're so small that they lay their eggs inside the eggs of thrips. Their brains are 50 times less complex than houseflies' brains. They're only the third smallest insect! (video)

Counterpoint to the megaweta!
posted by moonmilk (37 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Eagerly awaiting a post about the world's most medium-sized insect.
posted by Knappster at 3:01 PM on December 1, 2011 [12 favorites]


Fairy Wasps on wikipedia.
posted by jeffkramer at 3:07 PM on December 1, 2011


Now, we must address the obvious question: Who would win in a fight between a megaweta, and a megaweta's weight in fairy wasps?

Discuss!
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:07 PM on December 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wow.
posted by brundlefly at 3:13 PM on December 1, 2011


Who would win in a fight between a megaweta, and a megaweta's weight in fairy wasps?

The wasps would just fly away. Even with 7400 neurons, they're smart enough to know that violence is not the answer.
posted by gray17 at 3:26 PM on December 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Eagerly awaiting a post about the world's most medium-sized insect.

Any bug you show me is the world's most medium-sized insect, because I will always tell you I saw a bigger one the other day.
posted by balistic at 3:27 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Big bugs have little bugs
Upon their backs to bite 'em.
And little bugs have littler bugs,
And so on ad infinitum.
---Ogden Nash
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:30 PM on December 1, 2011 [11 favorites]


I'm visualizing 200 micrometers, or about the width of one or a few human hairs, and thinking "Okay, that's tiny but not microscopic- I could see something like that with the naked eye". But now I'm more aghast that there are amoebas and paramecium that big. It's kind of blowing my mind that there are cells I can easily see without any lenses or microscope!
posted by hincandenza at 3:31 PM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I hate wasps but what fun could there be in swatting the crap out of something so small you can't actually see it?
posted by tommasz at 3:33 PM on December 1, 2011


It's kind of blowing my mind that there are cells I can easily see without any lenses or microscope!

You can probably see an ostrich egg without a microscope.
posted by snofoam at 3:43 PM on December 1, 2011 [10 favorites]


hush, you
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:47 PM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


You can probably see an ostrich egg without a microscope.

Or a plasmodial slime mold! (It's about as lovely as it sounds)
posted by dialetheia at 4:01 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the Wikipedia page:

Their bodies are usually nonmetallic...

Watch out for the metallic fairy wasps.
posted by odinsdream at 4:12 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


metallic fairy wasps?

\m/ (>.<) \m/
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 4:16 PM on December 1, 2011 [13 favorites]


It's kind of blowing my mind that there are cells I can easily see without any lenses or microscope!

Calupera Racemosa, a single giant cell that you can eat. I want to try one one day and drink the cytoplasm.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 4:24 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Right now I am working on a project that involves identifying and counting a large amount of microorganisms. The past few weeks I have been staring into a microscope looking at organisms usually between 2-30 micrometres. When I clicked on this link the first thing I thought when I saw the scale bar was "Holy shit, that thing is huge!".

That said, the world down there is pretty incredible and after thinking about it for a minute, I'm willing to accept that an insect that small is pretty incredible.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 4:25 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


drink the cytoplasm

That sounds nasty now that I read about how these things reproduce.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 4:27 PM on December 1, 2011


Finally, a wasp I'm not terrified of.
posted by redsparkler at 4:49 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Who would win in a fight between a megaweta, and a megaweta's weight in fairy wasps?

African or European?
posted by rhizome at 5:14 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's kind of blowing my mind that there are cells I can easily see without any lenses or microscope!

Don't worry, once you get to be around 45 years old you won't have that problem any more.
posted by localroger at 5:19 PM on December 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


There is an interesting corollary here with regard to the search for real life extension. One of the Fairy Wasp's adaptations is that none of its neurons have nuclei. Evolution figured out that they're only living five days anyway, and the cells can make all the proteins the neurons will need to function that long before growing too big to fit in the wasp's head. Thus, not just 7,400 neurons, but 7,400 nuclei-free neurons that have non-rechargeable 5-day batteries.

Now, if you were the Fairy Wasp scientist seeking to extend your life beyond that 5 days very much, you would be very thoroughly fucked.

And it is quite possible that there is some similar compromise behind the fact that we can only ever live 100 years or so. I think the one the aging researchers currently fear most is that aging keeps the cancer rate in check.
posted by localroger at 5:24 PM on December 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


BitterOldPunk:
I hate love to be a pedant, but the correct verse is:
"So nat'ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller fleas that bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum."
--Johnathan Swift

Or the later:
"Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on."
--Augustus De Morgan

And the correct image to accompany it is this one, showing mites burrowed between the scales of a hedgehog flea.

I love me my Ogden Nash, but I think your quote's misattribution.
To make it up to Ogden lovers, I will propose this substitution:
The wasp and all his numerous family
I look upon as a major calamity.
He throws open his nest with prodigality,
But I distrust his waspitality.
--Ogden Nash
posted by agentofselection at 5:40 PM on December 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


With only 7,400 neurons, I sort of wonder if it would be practical to do a computer simulation of a fairy wasp brain. It seems to me, as a clueless outsider who knows next to nothing about either biology or AI research, like that could be a pretty cool project.
posted by moss at 5:48 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


moss, you want to read this, I think. (I haven't read it. Googled it up real quick.)
posted by endless_forms at 5:54 PM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yes, I do! Thanks!
posted by moss at 5:59 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thank you, agentofselection, for the correction. Because what I was really doing was quoting my dad misquoting Jonathan Swift and misattributing it to Ogden Nash. All from faulty memory and without bothering to check sources. Lazy of me. I stand corrected. But I do recall, correctly I believe, another Ogden Nash poem that pertains:

Fleas

Adam
had'em.

---Ogden Nash
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:34 PM on December 1, 2011


I'm visualizing 200 micrometers, or about the width of one or a few human hairs, and thinking "Okay, that's tiny but not microscopic- I could see something like that with the naked eye". But now I'm more aghast that there are amoebas and paramecium that big. It's kind of blowing my mind that there are cells I can easily see without any lenses or microscope!

The largest cell is actually an unfertilized ostrich egg. A human egg cell is about half that size, btw.
posted by delmoi at 7:32 PM on December 1, 2011


Thus, not just 7,400 neurons, but 7,400 nuclei-free neurons that have non-rechargeable 5-day batteries.

Now, if you were the Fairy Wasp scientist seeking to extend your life beyond that 5 days very much, you would be very thoroughly fucked.
But, with just 7,400 neurons it would probably be much easier to disassemble the nervous system entirely and 'upload' it to a computer. Of course, the problem is with 7,400 neurons it would also be difficult to figure out.
posted by delmoi at 7:35 PM on December 1, 2011


Now, if you were the Fairy Wasp scientist seeking to extend your life beyond that 5 days very much, you would be very thoroughly fucked.

Great. Now I am imagining Blade Runner with a cast of fairy wasps.

"I want more life, fucker!".
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:13 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why do they have such feathery wings? Is that something to do with air -vs- body weight or does it relate to the great % of time they live in water or something else??

(Thanks moonmilk!)
posted by peacay at 9:34 PM on December 1, 2011


I find myself wondering if this exerts constraints on the neural coding. If you don't have a nucleus, my understanding is that your supply of neurotransmitters is finite. Maybe they can make enough proteins to do all the neuronal firing for their five days of life, but I have to imagine that there is some strong selection pressure to not die because their neurons stop being able to send spikes onto their postsynaptic neurons.
posted by Schismatic at 1:22 AM on December 2, 2011


Ostrich eggs may be the most massive cells, but in terms of length neurons win easily. Even humans have neurons about 1.5 metres long: giraffes can have them four or five metres long (it's the neck, you know). But I believe the Colossal Squid has neurons up to about 12 metres.
posted by Segundus at 1:34 AM on December 2, 2011


peacay, according to the article and with reference to another tiny, feather-winged creature "Their wings, like those of thrips and fairy wasps, are little more than wispy strands, rather than the flat oars of most other insects. That’s all they need to paddle through thick air currents."
posted by hydrobatidae at 11:39 AM on December 2, 2011


Thanks hydrobatidae. It's still a big change from the flat wing* and seems to either purposefully or accidentally increase the surface area of the creature by an enormous amount. I find this to be intriguing as surface area, particularly in little critters, is often an important life-affirming dimension.
*I guess it may not have evolved from the flat wing(?) or is one to think that the flat wing in a beastie so small made it more vulnerable to hunters?
posted by peacay at 7:23 PM on December 2, 2011


I think it is probably a modified form of the flat wing. If you look closely at insect wings they are made up of hard structural pieces and thinner webby bits (obviously those are scientific terms). I could see that having the webby bits would actively detrimental for the insect because it would catch the wind/air currents too much and propel the wasp way too far. So wasps that had ripped or incomplete web would do better and you'd evolve the loss of the web from the wing. That would produce a wing with all the feathery bits that could break up the air and, instead of send them flying centimeters from where they were, they would be able to float.

Note: The above is a just so story and not approved evolutionary history.
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:49 AM on December 3, 2011


From the Physics Buzz blog:
Small insects paddle through air

Just as a kayaker uses a paddle to push his or her kayak through the water, small insects use their wings to push themselves through the air, using the force of drag. Unlike birds who use the force of lift to fly through the air, insects swim through the air, pushing it behind them like a fish pushes aside water.
...
To small animals, like tiny flying insects, the air that makes up Earth's atmosphere can feel thick and heavy like water feels to humans. They need more of a push than lift alone to move through the thick atmosphere.
And these wasps are even smaller, so the air is really thick to them. The little hairs are all they need.
posted by jjj606 at 9:18 PM on December 3, 2011


This is neat if you need a good visualization of the size of microorganisms.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 6:47 PM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


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