Velvet ants are almost invincible

p03539g6In a dry, open field in New Mexico, US, a hungry lizard spots a brightly-coloured, hairy insect scurrying across the sandy soil. Thinking it has found a meal, the lizard sprints to catch the insect. But once it has the insect in its mouth, it finds it is too hard to chew.

The lizard then moves the insect around to find a softer chewing angle but gets nowhere. Meanwhile the insect starts to squeak and finally stings the luckless lizard in its mouth. Alarmed, the lizard spits it out.

The insect, still squeaking, gets away unscathed. The lizard is left with nothing but a sore mouth and a foul taste.

This sturdy insect is a female velvet ant. These females have an arsenal of defences unmatched by their male partners, or any other insect. The question is, what terrifying predator forced the females to evolve so many defences? And if they are in such dire threat from predators, why are they brightly coloured?

Answer to these questions (and more) in my feature at BBC Earth.

Photo credit: Joseph Wilson

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