Nightmares: the stuff of bad dreams

By Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Some
look like props from the set of scary movies. Others are the inspiration for
horror movies. Nature seems to provide all the raw materials our imaginations
do not need

Acletoxenus cf. indicus (2013-10-23) by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Acletoxenus indicus Malloch, 1929

Researchers at the National University of Singapore were carrying out experiments to determine how whiteflies (Aleurotrachelus trachoides) affect chilli plants and if their biological control was possible. What they found was much more sinister.

Acletoxenus cf. indicus by Yuchen AngLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Researchers assumed that the whiteflies had two types of immature stages, one large and one small.

Acletoxenus cf. indicus (2013-10-23) by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

However, when the larger larvae pupated, they emerged not as whiteflies but as flies that have been tentatively identified as Acletoxenus indicus.

Acletoxenus cf. indicus by Yuchen AngLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

The larvae of Acletoxenus indicus were feeding on the nymphs of the whiteflies! The larvae of Acletoxenus indicus were able to camouflage themselves so that the whiteflies do not seem to notice anything amiss.

Acletoxenus cf. indicus by Yuchen AngLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

The Acletoxenus indicus larvae then take their time preying on the whitefly nymphs, quite literally sucking the life out of them. The Acletoxenus indicus larvae eventually pupate and before emerging as an adult fly, and the cycle starts anew.

Acletoxenus cf. indicus (2013-10-23) by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

The flies can only be tentatively identified as Acletoxenus indicus as the colouration of the adults does not seem to be a useful characteristic.

Acletoxenus cf. indicus (2013-10-23) by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

This study has shown that the characteristics used to identify species of Acletoxenus flies will need to be revised.

Acletoxenus cf. indicus (2013-10-23) by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

The flies from Singapore have colouration pattern that matches three of the four known species of Acletoxenus flies. Acletoxenus indicus was first described from specimens from India and is found in many countries. In ASEAN, this species is tentatively known from Singapore.

Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) by Chua Keng SoonLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Dead Man’s Fingers
Xylaria polymorpha (Pers.) Grev.

This species of fungus superficially resembles charred fingers emerging from the ground, hence their common name. These black finger-like structures are only present when the colony is mature. This species is often found growing on dead tree stumps and wood, acting as a decomposer. It releases enzymes that break down the lignin and carbohydrates, causing the resulting wood to become softer, while other nutrients are released to support its growth. This is called ‘soft rot’. This decomposition allows other small creatures to feed on the remaining nutrients to complete the decomposition process.

Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) by Chua Keng SoonLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

When it grows on certain trees, this fungus produces a melanin-like pigment that protects the colony. These pigment forms black zone lines in the wood of the tree. The zone lines can imbue the wood with pretty colours and patterns. People often use this species to introduce unique colours and distinctive patterns into wood in a process called spalting. Each piece of spalted wood is one-of-a-kind and no two pieces are the same. They are much sought-after by custom furniture makers and buyers.

Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) by Chua Keng SoonLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Little is known about the edibility of this fungus and consuming it is not recommended. This species is widespread worldwide and is possibly found throughout ASEAN.

Gonostoma sp. (2018-03-28) by SJADES 2018Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Atlantic Fangjaw
Gonostoma atlanticum Norman, 1930

Its name notwithstanding, the Atlantic Fangjaw is found worldwide in tropical and subtropical waters from 50 to 1,352 metres. Despite its fearsome (and nightmarish) appearance and name, this species mainly feeds on tiny shrimp-like crustaceans called krill. It also possesses rows of light-producing organs (or photophores) along the lower half of its body. Within ASEAN, this species is found in deep water around Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Verticia orientalis (2013-07-26) by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Verticia orientalis (Malloch, 1927)

Researchers at the National University of Singapore studying a species of termite (Macrotermes malaccensis) made another macabre discovery. One particular soldier termite had an abnormal appearance. Its jaws were shorter than a normal soldier but longer than that of a worker.

Back in the laboratory, the head of this termite appeared to change colour. Close examination showed that there was something moving inside its head.

Verticia orientalis (2013-07-24) by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

What is more, a curious appendage was observed to be moving in and out at the tip of the termite’s rear end.

What is more, a curious appendage was observed to be moving in and out at the tip of the termite’s rear end.

Verticia orientalis by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Imagine the horror when the ‘appendage’ turned out to be another animal trying to exit from the termite. Eventually a maggot exited from the termite.

Verticia orientalis (2013-07-28) by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

The maggot proceeded to pupate while the termite wandered around for a short time before dying.

Verticia orientalis (2016-10-17) by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

The identity of the ‘alien’ was confirmed when the adult fly emerged from the pupa. It was identified as Verticia orientalis.

Verticia orientalis (2016-10-17) by Maosheng FooLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

This species is known to somehow (scientists do not know how!) enter and develop in the head of termites and cause abnormal growth. Outside of ASEAN, this species is known from India. Within ASEAN, this species is known from Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Three Colour Flat-back Millipede (2014-08-08) by Somsak PanhaLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Three Colour Flat-back Millipede
Antheromorpha uncinata Jeekel, 1968

The body segments of this species are very brightly coloured and are a distinctive difference from other millipede species. The body colour varies from reddish-orange to light yellow with the blackish to dark brown parallel bands present on each body segment. The head and antennae are blackish in colour, while the legs are dark to light brown in colour.

Three Colour Flat-back Millipede (2010-05-25) by Somsak PanhaLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

This millipede is commonly found in evergreen forests, limestone areas or near human habitation. It is widely distributed from the north to the south of Thailand.

Three Colour Flat-back Millipede (2014-09-13) by Somsak PanhaLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

At certain times, when conditions are favourable, the population of this species can explode. This leads to swarms of these millipedes.

Three Colour Flat-back Millipede (2011-09-03) by Somsak PanhaLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

One such swarm was reported in Phan District, Chiang Rai Province, in northern Thailand. A very large number of these millipedes made their way into the homes of local villagers, causing panic and distress—a millipede nightmare!

Three Colour Flat-back Millipede (2013-12-23) by Somsak PanhaLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Thankfully, this species is harmless and it is plays an important role as a decomposer in the ecosystem.

Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) by Chua Keng SoonLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Humans feel dread or repulsion towards certain animals. These seemingly nightmarish creatures are a figment of our imagination. They are just doing what comes natural to survive—to use their amazing features to secure a hard-won meal.

Credits: Story

Text:

Acletoxenus cf. indicus
Yuchen Ang
Maosheng Foo
Rudolf Meier
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Dead Man’s Fingers
Keng Soon Chua
Clarisse Y. D. Tan
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Gonostoma sp.
SJADES 2018
(Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Indonesia and National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Three Colour Flat-back Millipede
Somsak Panha
(Chulalongkorn University, Thailand)

Verticia orientalis
Maosheng Foo
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)


Images:

Dead Man’s Fingers
Keng Soon Chua
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Acletoxenus cf. indicus
Verticia orientalis
Maosheng Foo
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Gonostoma sp.
SJADES 2018
(Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Indonesia and National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Three Colour Flat-back Millipede
Somsak Panha
(Chulalongkorn University, Thailand)



Video:

Acletoxenus cf. indicus
Yuchen Ang
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Verticia orientalis
Maosheng Foo
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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