Recently we looked at some of the formidable (and rather scary!) giants of the beetle world, so it’s only fair that we turn our attention to the other end of the spectrum and take a peek at the smallest of their kind – the Featherwing family.
The entire Featherwing family comprises some pretty tiny specimens. Take the very smallest of their kind – the Scydosella. These guys have unsurprisingly remained largely unnoticed until relatively recently (1999) when the species was first recorded in Nicaragua.
Not only are these minute creatures the smallest known beetles; they are also the smallest known non-parasites – these guys are no vampires; instead, they prefer fungus, organic and plant matter on their dinner menu.
Apart from Nicaragua, they weren’t detected anywhere else until 2015 when they were also found in Chicaque National Park in Colombia by a scientist who was able to more accurately measure their minute dimensions by using a combination of an electron microscope and specially-written software. Their vital statistics came in at wteeny 0.338mm (0.0015 inches) in length and 0.100mm (0.0004inches) in width – these critters are literally microscopic and are smaller than some amoebas and even some bacteria– making them too small for us to see without the aid of a microscope.
So what do they look like? Well the microscope identifies them as having a yellowy brown body, oval in shape, with tiny 10 segmented antenna, mouthparts and even minute, feathery wings.
It’s probably due to their near invisibility that we’ve so far only found one species of the Scydosella to date – but surely there are more hiding out there for us to find…
As you might imagine, the Featherwings get their name from having, well, wings that are feather-like! Whist their flying equipment might appear delicate, it certainly doesn’t detract from them achieving astonishing aeronautical speed, being able to fly as fast as their cousins who are three times as big! How do they manage it? It’s all down to the dainty structure of their wings – they are lighter and more efficient than those of a more typically solid design! The feather-like structures also contain bristles which are effective at puncturing their way through the air.
It’s not only the unique design of their wings, but how they use them – unlike other beetles, they turn them in a figure of 8 motion, above and below their bodies – this movement packs them a punch when it comes to aerial propulsion.
How do the Featherwings mange to be so small? They have developed a distinct anatomy, having no heart or gizzard, which means they can economise on body size.
When it comes to reproduction, they lay only one egg at a time; but what they lack in egg numbers, they make up for in size, because the egg is about half as long as the female – ouch that must hurt! They are continually reproducing throughout their lives – and if there isn’t a mate around, well then no problem, because they have a handy trick of females being able to lay female eggs only and in some species of Featherwings only females have so far been found – so a girl powered society!
Whilst we have been able to identify around 600 species of Featherwings so far, it’s thought there are doubtless many more – we just haven’t spotted them yet! We also know relatively little about them and it’s hoped that with recent technological advances, we’ll be able to learn lots more about these teeny beings.
It just goes to show, there is far more out there than meets the eye!