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Insects started using camouflage 100 million years ago: Study

"With this 'disguise,' the lacewing larva pretends to be someone completely different," explained researcher Jes Rust.

By Brooks Hays
Insects started using camouflage 100 million years ago: Study
Owlfly larvae are seen using leaf litter and small stones to camouflage themselves. Photo by Bo Wang/Nanjing

BONN, Germany, June 24 (UPI) -- New amber-encased evidence suggests insects were using costumes, or "invisibility cloaks," to camouflage themselves from predators as early as 100 million years ago.

Researchers from the University of Bonn recently documented a variety of insects trapped in fossilized amber adorned with bits of plants, dirt, grains of sand and remains of prey. The costume materials serve as proof of early insect camouflage and offer insights into the preferred habitats of ancient insects.

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One piece of amber shows the end result of a battle between a lacewing larva and a pseudoscorpion. After killing the pseudoscorpion, a lacewing larva sucked it dry with its powerful mouth and positioned its victim's remains on its body. The amber showcases a lacewing larva dressed like a pseudoscorpion.

"With this 'disguise,' the lacewing larva pretends to be someone completely different," researcher Jes Rust of the Steinmann-Institute at the University of Bonn, explained in a news release. "Using the pieces of its prey, it even takes on the smell of the pseudoscorpion."

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Researchers documented the use of camouflage by 35 insects from the Cretaceous. In addition to remnants of prey, insects were found using disguises or cloaks made of sand, plant residue, wood fibers and dust.

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"These are very rare fossils, which give us unique insights into life more than 100 million years ago," said Torsten Wappler of the Steinmann-Institute.

Researchers believe the use of sand in costumes also served to protect insects from attacks. Some insects, researchers hypothesize, adapted more flexible appendages to apply their disguises to their backside.

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"It is very surprising how early in evolution such complex insect behavior developed: The larvae had to search actively for suitable 'camouflage material', pick it up, and cloak themselves with it," added Bo Wang, a paleobiologist from the State Key Laboratory of Paleobiology and Stratigraphy in China, currently a guest researcher at the University of Bonn.

Researchers published their findings this week in the journal Science Advances.

Insects continue to use similar camouflage techniques today. Caddisfly larvae, for example, use sediments to hide themselves among the sands of their riverbed home.

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