Dodging snakes and collecting washed up cigarette lighters with my friend Jeff was not the only action we had on this excursion to the Falls of the Ohio. By now, I should not be surprised by what turns up at this remarkable location…because it happens with such regularity. For me, the thrill of discovery has become addictive and interwoven into my creative process. Recalling events, I believe it was my friend Jeff who stumbled upon this revolting artifact and so I will begin this story here.
It’s a very large jar of bologna. The contents have more than settled, in fact they have decayed to the point of becoming cream of bologna. I know, this is completely disgusting, but bear with me for the real point of the story follows this discovery. It was a short distance from this jar that we encountered another remarkable member of the Genus Polystyrenus.
Hidden just out of sight among the debris line was this very large and aggressive looking insect. I estimate that this impressive creature was about two feet long. It would be an under estimation to say that both Jeff and I were taken aback (how we both avoided voiding our bladders upon our persons, I will never know). After what seemed a very long length of time, the amateur naturalist in me took over and I began taking photographs and making observations. Here’s a detail of its head and impressive jaws. It’s small antennae were wiggling back and forth.
Looking at the mandibles, I’m guessing that this creature had adapted to eating meat or carrion, both of which are found at the Falls. It emitted a sickly sweet odor. I think our large bug friend had discovered the bologna jar before we did and we may have interrupted its meal? Because this ant-wasp, (seems to have characteristics of both) did not defend its bologna bode well for Jeff and I. In fact, we did learn that despite its fearsome appearance our bug friend was retiring and unaggressive. I decided to tag along and learn what I could about this amazing one of a kind animal.
From a short distance away, I was able to observe some behaviors that I recorded with my camera. I believe that my assumption about it’s being a scavenger is on target. I watched our insect “friend” actively investigating an old bone it had come across. The bone was rolled around in its jaws as though our bug was tasting it? Finding no meat, it simply dropped the bone. I also noted that this creature has vestigial wings that have atrophied to a yellow flap found attached to the rear of its thorax and ironically has the appearance of a fly swatter. Perhaps its large size makes flight an impossibility and the wings have shrunk to the present size?
Near the tree line, and keeping a respectful distance away, I observed Polystyrenus investigating a large plastic pipe mostly buried in the sand. It did attempt to dig away the sand blocking the entrance to the pipe, but soon abandoned this effort. I don’t want to assume too much, but I was intuiting at the time that it was looking for a burrow in which to hide, etc… I did make a discreet effort to determine its gender, but was unsuccessful. Here’s my last picture of it.
Amazingly, our bug was making short work from what was once a large barge cable that was originally as thick as a stout man’s forearm. It’s jaws easily shredded the nylon strands. Why it was doing this…will require more research. Shortly after this image was taken, the sound of loud, boorish people coming down the riverbank spooked our insect and it took off with surprising speed over the sandy surface of the Falls. Perhaps it understood that Jeff and I posed no threat, but it couldn’t be certain of the strangers? During the short amount of time I was studying this creature I also noted that it didn’t have claws to speak of and didn’t possess a stinger. Perhaps I will encounter this insect or other large insect species again because this is not the only time I have come across similar giants. Take a look at these specimens for which the genus Polystyrenus was originally named.
This has been classified as Polystyrenus ichthyphagia, based in part on this remarkable photograph of it feeding on a non-native, dead fish. I made this discovery several years a go…in fact, it is with some regret that I collected (euphemism for killed) this specimen and one other that turned out to be a male and female. This was done of course in the name of science. The one feeding on the fish is the female. Note the flute-like ovipositor and vestigial wings which made a raspy sound. The mouth parts on P. icthyphagia have adapted for sucking. Why these large insects have appeared at the Falls is inconclusive. But I believe this is evolution at work. The more we change our environment, the more we affect not only ourselves but all the other creatures that call this place home. It can’t help to release tons of fireworks chemicals into the atmosphere and what we do with the water in general is a crime. I will leave my soap box for the moment. I suppose the reason that these giant insects have evaded previous detection is that they so strongly imitate garbage and detritus that they can elude most people’s notice. Here’s a photograph of the dried and preserved male and female P. ichthyphagia with its egg case. There is some sexual dimorphism with the male being considerably smaller than the female. These specimens are in separate collections now. The name Polystyrenus was chosen because the exoskeletons of these amazing insects so strongly resembles polystyrene, also generically known as Styrofoam. The largest bug here is over three feet long.
As a kid, I fell in love with one particular story that appeared in an old Natural Geographic entitled “Giant Insects of the Amazon”. Its author, Paul Zahl must have had the best job in the world to be able to travel to exotic places to study rare and unusual animals. I suppose, I’m doing something similar, but I’m not traveling far from home and making my own giants. Here’s the last picture of how I began the latest Polystyrenus receiving inspiration from the materials I find on location. Although I didn’t use all the stuff here…it provided a template of sorts.
I dedicate this post to Julia Oldham, bug lover and current artist in residence at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in nearby Clermont, Kentucky.
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