In the fascinating world of insects, a strange and peculiar group exists known as treehoppers (Membracidae). These little insects, which look like tiny cicadas, have some of the most extravagant shapes in the animal world.
Fast and unusual
Treehoppers belong to the order Hemiptera, along with bedbugs, cicadas, spittlebugs, leafhoppers and some others. They have the ability, first of all, to jump quickly, but they also fly. The leap of these little insects is remarkable, with studies demonstrating that they can reach a speed of five meters per second and an acceleration of greater than 700 g. These are piercing-sucking insects, because thanks to their stylets they’re capable of penetrating stems and then feeding on the sap of plants and trees. But what distinguishes these treehoppers are the extravagant, sometimes exaggerated shapes they possess, whose origin and function are still poorly understood and which are the subject of debate among scientists.
Protecting the larvae and communicating
Treehoppers are either solitary or have a herd mentality, or else they enjoy a sort of sociability: in nature, individuals have been observed gathering together, either groups of adults or adults with their larvae. In a number of species the female protects her eggs and subsequently protects her larvae, through to the adult stage: this is therefore an example of parental care. Treehoppers are also capable of producing sounds, which implies a form of communication from one to the other.
Special relationship with ants
Ants are attracted by treehoppers, which like other Hemiptera secrete a honeydew rich in amino acids and carbohydrates. The ants use the honeydew as food, and in return protect the treehoppers against possible predators. This beneficial relationship between two species is referred to as mutualism.
Wonderful diversity of species
Currently more than 3,270 species are on record in the world. Most of the species live in the tropics, but Québec has a very fine diversity, with more or less 80 species, compared to just four for France.
Camouflage or finery?
It’s believed that these ornaments with their extraordinary shapes, sizes and textures serve as camouflage. Some look like spines or even like droppings, while others display shapes resembling ants. Sensors along these shapes evoke the possibility that the insects are capable of perceiving smells or colors. What’s the true function and origin? It seems there are still a lot of things to learn about these fascinating and bizarre little insects.