Field of Science

Wasps with Fangs on their Feet?

Theronia septentrionalis, photographed by Stephen Cresswell.

The ichneumons are one of the more familiar groups of parasitoid wasps for the general public. The species in the photo above is a member of the Theronia group of ichneumons, which attain a reasonable size by wasp standards (a number of species seem to be in the range of 1.5 centimetres long) and are often brightly coloured in yellow or green. The Theronia group is primarily tropical in distribution, though some species are found in more temperate regions. Authors have differed on whether they treat this group as a single genus or divide it between about half a dozen genera; either option is complicated by the fact that both the group as a whole and some of its constituent restricted genera are doubtfully monophyletic (Gauld et al. 2002). Where their larval hosts are known, many members of the Theronia group are endoparasitic in moth cocoons (including some economically significant pests such as the gypsy moth), though at least some species are not parasites of the moth itself but are hyperparasites of other ichneumon larvae attacking the moth. One (sub)genus, Nomosphecia, includes parasites of vespid wasp larvae (Gauld 1984).

Male Theronia atalantae, photographed by Phil Huntley-Franck.

Bright colours are often a sign of danger in the animal kingdom, and the Theronia group seem to follow that trend. One of the group's distinctive features is larged, curved claws with an associated spatulate bristle. As noted by Gauld (1984), "When caught they sink their large claws into their captor." This sounds uncomfortable enough in itself, especially as said claws have a tendency to break and leave their tips embedded in the skin if the wasp is not allowed to remove them in her own time. But there's more: the inside of the claw bears a fluid-filled cavity, and the act of embedding the claws releases the contents of this cavity into the wound. In other words, the claws seem to function in much the same way as the fangs of a venomous snake.

Or do they? We know that the fluid injected by Theronia into would-be attackers can cause irritation to vertebrate epithelium (Gauld et al. 2002), but we don't seem to know just what it contains or how it acts. As such, we don't know how confident we can be that the fluid is indeed effective defensively. Theronia may have poison claws that act like fangs. Or it may just have big sharp claws, and that may be enough.


Gauld, I. D. 1984. An Introduction to the Ichneumonidae of Australia. British Museum (Natural History).

Gauld, I. D., D. B. Wahl & G. R. Broad. 2002. The suprageneric groups of the Pimplinae (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae): a cladistic re-evaluation and evolutionary biological study. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 136: 421-485.

The Importance of Genitalia

Take a look at the figure above (taken from Mauriès 2003). What you're looking at is the intimate business of a male millipede, in this case a Bosnian millipede called Fagina silvatica. And if you ever had the pleasure of finding yourself working on millipede taxonomy, you'd be looking at a lot of these.

Fagina silvatica belongs to a superfamily of millipedes called the Neoatractosomatoidea, which is in turn part of the order Chordeumatida in the clade Helminthomorpha. Helminthomorph millipedes (as indicated by their name, which means 'worm-like') all cleave pretty closely to the classic image of their kind, with an elongate body bearing large numbers of relatively short legs. Chordeumatida are characterised by having silk-spinning glands on the telson, the very end segment of the body, and three pairs of strong bristles on the top of each body segment. Male chordeumatidans also have the eighth and ninth pairs of legs modified into the gonopods, the copulatory structures. Because millipedes are generally not extravagant animals in overall appearance, it is the gonopods that have become the primary structures for identifying them, and many millipede species cannot be reliably distinguished without examining them. In the Neoatractosomatoidea, the eighth pair of legs forms the gonopods proper that deliver the male's sperm to the female's vulvae, while the ninth pair form protective structures called paragonopods. The gonopods proper are divided into two branches that fold around each other, usually to guide a whip-like flagellum or other extended structure passing between them (one genus, Guizhousoma, lacks the flagellum—Mauriès 2005). One neoatractosomatoid genus, Osellasoma, also has the seventh pair of legs modified into protective structures (Mauriès 2003). Neoatractosomatoids have 28 or 30 body segments. Some neoatractosomatoids have the sides of the body extended into flattened processes called paraterga; others have the body more or less cylindrical. And no, I haven't been able to find a single photograph or illustration showing a neoatractosomatoid in its entirety. You'll have to content yourself with looking at their genitals (Wikipedia has photos of other Chordeumatida).

As defined by Mauriès (2003, 2005), the Neoatractosomatoidea only includes about 25 known species, mostly found in southern Europe. A single species, the aforementioned Guizhousoma latellai, is known from caves in China. Mauriès (2003) separated three families previously placed in the Neoatractosomatoidea into a separate superfamily Mastigophorophylloidea; if the mastigophorophylloids are included with the neoatractosomatoids, then the group includes further species found in northern Asia. Mauriès separated the two superfamilies on the basis that mastigophorophylloids possessed a flagellum on both the gonopods and the paragonopods, instead of only on the gonopods. The subsequent discovery of the entirely flagellum-less Guizhousoma could raise questions about the significance of this character, and the flagellum appears much reduced if not entirely absent on the paragonopods of at least one putative mastigophorophylloid, Kirkayakus pallidus, as illustrated by Mikhaljova (2004)*. However, I have to admit to having absolutely zero experience with interpreting millipede gonopods, so I am hardly one to be voicing an opinion.

*Mikhaljova (2004) illustrates this species under the name of Altajella pallida, but it has since been renamed by Özdikmen (2008) (yes, that Özdikmen) due to the original genus being preoccupied).


Mauriès, J.-P. 2003. Schizmohetera olympica sp.n. from Greece, with a reclassification of the superfamily Neoatractosomatoidea (Diplopoda: Chordeumatida). Arthropoda Selecta 12 (1): 9-16.

Mauriès, J.-P. 2005. Guizhousoma latellai gen.n., sp.n., de Chine continentale, type d'une nouvelle famille de la superfamille des Neoatractosomatoidea (Diplopoda: Chordeumatida). Arthropoda Selecta 14 (1): 11-17.

Mikhaljova, E. V. 2004. The Millipedes (Diplopoda) of the Asian Part of Russia. Pensoft: Sofia.

Özdikmen, H. 2008. New family and genus names, Kirkayakidae nom. nov. and Kirkayakus nom. nov., for the millipedes (Diplopoda: Chordeumatida). Munis Entomology & Zoology 3 (1): 342-344.

Arthropods in the Precambrian?

The Ediacaran animal Spriggina floundersi, from here.

The Ediacaran biota has been touted as one of the great mysteries of palaeontology. Comprising the latest part of the Precambrian era, the Ediacaran is generally believed to have given us the earliest known animal fossils. However, palaeontologists have disagreed on just how the Ediacaran fossils relate to modern animals (see McCall 2006 for an exhaustively detailed review). Some see the Ediacarans as including the ancestors of groups that remain with us today: jellyfish, corals, comb jellies, sponges. Others see Ediacarans as outside the modern lineages: ancient animal groups that were swept aside by more modern animals at the beginning of the Cambrian. And some have even questioned whether the Ediacarans were even animals at all, suggesting links instead to fungi or Foraminifera, or even that they were an entirely independent lineage unrelated to any modern multicellular organisms.

In 1996, Benjamin Waggoner proposed the name 'Cephalata' for a clade uniting the arthropods with two groups of Ediacaran organisms: the Sprigginidae and the Vendiamorpha. These are among the most undeniably animal-like of the Ediacarans. The sprigginids (including Spriggina shown at the top of the post) have an undivided 'head' followed by a long segmented body. The vendiamorphs are shield-like organisms that also show evidence for segment-like divisions behind the 'head', such as branching internal structures that may represent side-branches of an internal gut.

The vendiamorph Vendia sokolovi, from Ivantsov (2004).

It is difficult to see these taxa as anything other than mobile animals. One supporter of non-animalian affinities for the Ediacarans, Adolf Seilacher, did suggest that Spriggina was a sessile organism, maintaining that the 'head' was in fact a holdfast while the 'body' extended upwards like the frond of a sea pen (I have seen a memorable reconstruction, though unfortunately I can't recall where, showing an individual of mobile Spriggina crawling past a cluster of sessile Spriggina). However, the numerous Spriggina specimens that have been found in Australia and Russia are invariably preserved lying flat, while sessile organisms from the same locations are preserved with the holdfast below the level of the body. Vendiamorphs, on the other hand, are simply not shaped in a way that allows them to be seen as anything other than lying flat. An immobile sprigginid or vendiamorph lying flat below the water would have been vulnerable to being buried by sediment, without any way of digging itself back out.

But if sprigginids and vendiamorphs were definitely animals, what kind of animals were they? It is at this point that things get a bit more vague. Their segmented appearance immediately suggests arthropods (and onychophorans) or annelids, but there is not a great deal to suggest one or the other. The differentiated head of sprigginids suggests the head of an arthropod, while vendiamorphs have been compared to the larvae of arthropods such as trilobites. However, it is unclear whether the Ediacaran taxa possessed anything like the limbs of arthropods and related taxa. The segments of sprigginids may be separated at the edges, and some have argued that folds in vendiamorph fossils are suggestive of limbs underneath a dorsal shield, but there is nothing that one would call unequivocal. Lateral outgrowths of sprigginids may correlate to annelid parapodia instead of arthropod limbs, and folds in the bodies of vendiamorphs may be nothing more than that. We recognise relationships between fossil and extant animals on the basis of whether they have features in common, but our assessment of what features they have may be coloured by what features we expect to see.

Another possible vendiamorph, Parvancorina minchami, from here. Note the fine parallel lines on the body, which some have interpreted as the outlines of limbs.

Some authors have drawn attention to a feature of both vendiamorphs and sprigginids that is visible in the image of Vendia above: their so-called 'glide reflectional symmetry'. Though their bodies appear segmented, the segments do not go straight across the body as one might expect. Instead, the left and right sides of the body are slightly offset from each other. For this reason, some authors have claimed that these animals do not show true bilateral symmetry and hence argued for placing them outside the Bilateria crown group, along its stem. However, others have suggested that the offset between sides may be an artefact of preservation. Even if it was indeed a feature of the living animal, glide reflectional symmetry may not necessarily force the sprigginids outside the Bilateria: a number of living bilaterians also show a certain degree of symmetry offset either as adults or during development, including basal chordates (Waggoner 1996).

During the period of the Cambrian, directly after the Ediacaran, we have access to beautifully preserved fossil deposits that have allowed us to characterise many animals from that period in exquisite detail. No such fossils exist for the Ediacaran; instead, Ediacaran animals are mostly preserved in coarse sediments that preserve only relatively broad features of the fauna. This can turn the Ediacarans into tantalising shadows, and what we see in them can say more about our assumptions than the animals themselves.


Ivantsov, A. Yu. 2004. New Proarticulata from the Vendian of the Arkhangel’sk region. Paleontologicheskii Zhurnal 2004 (3): 21–26 (transl. Paleontological Journal 38 (3): 247–253.

McCall, G. J. H. 2006. The Vendian (Ediacaran) in the geological record: enigmas in geology's prelude to the Cambrian explosion. Earth-Science Reviews 77: 1-229.

Waggoner, B. M. 1996. Phylogenetic hypotheses of the relationships of arthropods to Precambrian and Cambrian problematic fossil taxa. Systematic Biology 45 (2): 190-222.