Even before I realised, birdwatching had grown into an addiction I so looked forward to. Not one opportunity was missed to go away from the city and into the wilderness looking for birds. Short forays into the scrub on the outskirts of the city became a regular feature of my life.
That morning, I had set out on one such excursion. The day grew warm very soon and consequently the bird activity subsided. I took the opportunity to rest under the shade of a Lac tree (Shorea roxburghii). Only a few minutes had elapsed when I heard some rustling sound amid the leaf litter surrounding the tree. My eyes wandered in search of the source of the sound. I soon discovered it and sat staring at a beautiful black and white creature, well over an inch long. I identified it as a beetle though I had not seen anything like this one before!
I moved close to it. It stopped momentarily and moved again. This fascinating beetle repeated this pause and move routine for as long as I followed it – as if taking stock of the surroundings as it went about its routine. During the process of following it, I had noticed that it had very prominent and interesting (read menacing) mouthparts. Driven by curiosity, I had this urge to pick it up for a closer look. I carefully picked it up by the thorax when it stopped briefly, all the while making sure that the small sickle-shaped mandibles could not in any way harm me.
As I observed it, I noticed that the mandibles kept coming together like pincers. Just to check things out, I brought a leaf in the way of the mandibles. Before I could realise, the leaf had a neat cut. Next it was the turn of a twig that was about 6 inches long. The mandibles clasped the twig and wouldn’t let go even with me gently tugging at it! I gently put the beetle down and watched it quickly release its grip on the twig and go on its way.
As a matter of habit, I brought the fingers that held the beetle to my nose. The next thing I knew was that my eyes were watering! I had inadvertently taken a deep breath of the acidic substance lingering on my finger which the beetle had released. I had knowledge that some bugs produced strong smelling substances (as a defence mechanism) from prior experience. Little did I know that beetles are capable of exuding obnoxious chemicals for the same purpose! I was left thinking about the fate of the smaller creatures against whom this defence mechanism must have evolved, especially given the fact that the chemical could elicit such a reaction in a human being.
Later, not only did I learn about various defence mechanisms that the successful group of beetles had evolved but also the name of the little fellow who gave me an experience I will never forget – Six-spotted Ground Beetle Anthia sexguttata.
Over the years, I have seen this acid-spraying beetle many times primarily in scrub jungles (drier habitats). But never again have I managed to pluck the courage to pick it up! Just the memory of my interaction makes me respect this beautiful creature enough to maintain social distance.
In the same habitat, among the leaf litter I have also met with another insect – a roach (a Seven-spotted Cockroach) – with the same colour scheme and similar spots. This roach is also differently called as the Domino Cockroach Therea petiveriana.
This is clearly a case of the roach mimicking the beetle. The imposter gains protection from its predators by passing off as the beetle with strong defences.
Just a word of caution – don’t be fooled by the appearance of the cockroach and venture too close to one or pick it up assuming it to harmless. It could very well turn out to be an acid-spraying beetle!