23 March 2014

The functionally invisible world

This is a female booklouse. Booklice aren't lice (although the parasitic lice probably evolved from one of the groups of booklice) and they don't eat books (although some species are associated with them and may nibble the paste in book bindings). They belong to an order of insects called Psocodea [1], which includes 'booklice' (in the narrow sense), 'barklice', and the parasitic lice. The female in the photograph is one of New Zealand's native barklice but that term is far from entirely accurate too, because they're found in far more habitats than on bark. I found her on a lichen-festooned fence batten, where she seemed to be doing her best to avoid the attentions of a male who was displaying vigorously at her.

Many years ago, this unmistakable species was included in the genus Myopsocus. Later, it was transferred to the horribly-named genus Phlotodes (which sounds to me like something you might find honked into a handkerchief); it stayed in that genus for a few years before being shifted back to Myopsocus. Now, apparently, someone has moved it to the genus Nimbopsocus, a name roughly ten times longer than its owner even without the part that identifies the species: australis.

What often strikes me about these kinds of tiny creatures is the way they're unknown to most people. I'd be amazed if the number of New Zealanders who'd ever noticed Nimbopsocus australis [2] got beyond double figures. This species is fairly easy to find: just look closely at anything with a good growth of lichen and eventually you're likely to see either the adults or the herds of nymphs (which cluster in mobs like tiny wildebeest, grazing on algae, fungi and lichen). But who bothers to look? A few oddballs like me; weirdos who get more delight out of peering at lichen-encrusted fence battens and stockyard railings than polishing their Holdens; eccentrics who'd rather know about barklice than Bathhurst. They (these barklice, not me) are beautiful to look at, and the antics of the males when displaying to the females are hilarious (but the same is often true of us, although I've yet to see some bloke doubled over with his head on the ground, waving his arms in the air behind his back, and rocking from side to side).

They're not just beautiful, though: they're fascinating too. Think about everything needed to allow an insect's tiny body to be called 'alive' — the complexity of that astonishing number of structures and processes packed into something so small we overlook it unless it stings us or drowns in our soup. Despite our remarkable advances in engineering, an insect remains utterly beyond our ability to construct; compared to the little barklouse in this photograph, a V8 Supercar is about as complex as a brick.

In short, they're worth watching and thinking about (although I'm unlikely to have convinced the petrolheads [3] I've just antagonised). Yet hardly anyone does watch them — not just barklice, but most of the thousands of species of tiny animals that surround us every day. We don't even see them. They're out there in plain view, but functionally they're invisible.

1. Psocodea is sometimes considered a superorder comprising the order Psocoptera ('booklice' and 'barklice') and the order Phthiraptera ( parasitic lice).
2. More photographs in this NZ NatureWatch entry.
3. I'm using 'petrolhead' in the sense of definition no. 2 in the wiktionary entry.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


gz said...

She has a fascinating face

Zhoen said...

More new species in our backyards.

I've been participating in Your Wild Life studies, about all the little living things around us.

Relatively Retiring said...

Was it Hilaire Belloc who wrote, 'Greater fleas have smaller fleas upon their backs to bite'em.
Smaller fleas have lesser fleas...and so ad infinitum'?

I'm glad this little female had the sense to ignore the attention-seeking male (and yes, sadly, there may be human versions of this display process on a Saturday night in city centres).

A lovely post.
Long live oddballs, weirdos and eccentrics!

pohanginapete said...

gz, yes, that pattern's striking. One of the characteristics of barklice is the way the head is so distinctly separated from the rest of the body, making it particularly mobile.

Zhoen, I didn't know about Your Wild Life. Sounds like a great idea.

RR, I think the original version can be attributed to Swift, although the most-quoted version is more recent.
The world would be dreary indeed without oddballs, weirdos and eccentrics.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
I know that I can write for mayself, and John as well, that since being in your company we are both far more aware of the real depth of beuaty within the places we love. I still keep a sharp look out for my friend the acrocerid. :)

pohanginapete said...

Kia ora Robb. I'm honoured, and it's hugely pleasing to think I've been able to introduce the delights of these kinds of things to people like you and John. As for the way the acrocerid seems to have struck a particular chord, though, ... I have to hand the credit for that to Tara ;^)

bev said...

Wonderful photo and background on the booklouse. Yes, how very true that so few people pay much (or any) attention to small creatures. I do think that the availability of reasonably priced macro- capable digital cameras has somewhat increased the number of people who seek invertebrates, but it is stll a small minority.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Bev. Yes, I think you're right about the increasing availability of macro-capable cameras. I think, too, that today's superb documentaries (particularly those by the BBC/Attenborough) must have helped foster interest. After all, if you don't know something exists, you're not likely to look for it.

butuki said...

How well I know what it's like to be fascinated with the tiny universe that surrounds us. By far insects have been my greatest fascination since I was a boy, and I had to go through the period in junior high school when I was called "Nature Boy", and "When you grow up you're going to marry a cockroach!", accurately sizing me up, but very inaccurately missing the beauty and drama that looking closely brings. I have spent whole days in a small field, kneeling in the tall grass, staring closely and brandishing my camera, waiting for the slight breeze to pass so that the insect would stop thrashing through my lens image. My dream is to miniaturize myself and my camera, so I can wander through that world the way I walk in the woods, but I'm afraid I wouldn't last very long. The wilderness down there is a hundred times wilder than anything we know in our own macrocosmic world.

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, I think I missed being labelled like that, but in other respects I had a similar boyhood — fascinated with animals from as early as I can remember. I can't imagine that fascination ever diminishing, either. You're right about the wildness at that scale, though — some of what goes on is horrific. It's a good reminder to avoid getting too sentimental about the natural world — it's not all smiley dolphins and fluffy pandas.