Insect patterns: cracking the code

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7th March 2012
Submitted by heather

'The Bugman' – science writer and expert entomologist Richard Jones – is spellbound by the secret language of insects.

Insect patterns: cracking the code

As a boy, 'The Bugman' – science writer and expert entomologist Richard Jones – always wanted to know how the ladybird got its spots. Now a grown-up bug hunter, he is still spellbound by the secret language of insects.

We live in a visual world. From antelopes to ants and zebras to zebra spiders, colours and patterns dominate the senses. But what do the dots, spots, bars and stars mean?  

Like tourists grappling with the glottal stops of an unfamiliar tongue, deciphering the rich but sometimes bewildering graphic code used by animals is a major challenge for zoologists.
 
Invertebrates are excellent but enigmatic source material for the code-breaking scientist. Though relatively small – and often secretive – they are not all shrinking violets that lurk in the undergrowth. Seen close up, many species are startlingly – and perplexingly – patterned.
 
These markings give vital clues to identity (differentiating rivals and mates), warn of danger (a foul taste or toxicity) and provide defence (in the form of camouflage).
 
The variety of decoration in this world of spineless wonders seems infinite, but individuals of the same species usually conform to a fixed pattern. There is nothing random about the dots and dashes.
 
We now know that chemical pigments are under precise genetic control. Armed with this knowledge, we have bred insects with different colours and markings, in effect creating our own code. But there is much still to learn and many more invertebrate ciphers to decrypt.
 
To see stunningly detailed pictures of these insects, click next.