Mobile homes

[featured image]

With their soft bodies and lack of wings, insect larvae are the number one food item for countless other animals. The only thing that keeps the predatory hordes at bay is the amazing defensive adaptations these immature insects have evolved.  For example, the toxin-laden tissues of various plants intended to keep herbivores away are greedily scoffed by certain insect larvae who use the unpleasant compounds to defend themselves from their own enemies. Other insects complete their entire larval development safe inside the trunk or branch of a tree laboriously munching wood to extract what nutrients they can (see previous post). More constructive species, such as the caddis-fly larvae and case-bearing moth caterpillars construct themselves minute mobile homes from small stones and fragments of wood and leaves.

It is among these constructive insect larvae our next animals belong. Cryptocephalus beetles are a very odd bunch of leaf-beetles (Chrysomelidae) that spend their time as a larva scuttling amongst the leaf litter carrying their own portable, flask-shaped shelter, lovingly fashioned from their very own cack.  Just how these beetle larvae come to have their own mobile den of dirt begins when they are little more than zygotes. The maternal instincts of the female Cryptocephalus beetle extend to coating each of the eggs she lays with a diligently arranged layer of faecal plates:

Cryptocephalus decemmaculatus Female egg-laying_2
Female Cryptocephalus decemmaculatus coating an egg in faecal plates to form an egg case (Ross Piper).


Cryptocephalus parvulus egg laying from Ross Piper on Vimeo.

A small depression (circled) on the back end of the female Cryptocephalus beetle allows the egg to be held in place while it is covered in faeces. This presence or absence of this structure also allows these beetles to be sexed (Ross Piper).
Cryptocephalus nitidulus egg case
Here’s the fruit of the female’s labours – a completed egg case. It takes the female beetle about 10-15 minutes to complete each case, which is quite an investment of time (SEM – Ross Piper)

When the excrement egg capsule is finished the female flicks it into the leaf litter and a few days later the larva hatches, cuts a hole in the end of its egg case and pops it head and strong legs into the outside world. Its soft, vulnerable abdomen  is tucked safely inside the case, held in a loose ‘C’ shape and with no further hesitation the larva, little bigger than the head of a pin, scuttles off with its malodorous mobile home held aloft. This may seem like a bit of a burden for the tiny larva, but at the slightest sign of danger, the larva withdraws its head and legs into the case in the blink of an eye, leaving the hole of the case, plugged with its dark, tough head capsule. In this way, the case affords the larva a degree of protection from the numerous predators that stalk the leaf litter.

Cryptocephalu parvulus larvae
Cryptocephalus parvulus larvae scoffing some birch leaves. See how the larva’s legs protrude from the case of cack. This makes the young larvae in particular very mobile (Ross Piper).

C. parvulus larvae_2

As the Cryptocephalus larva grows, so must its mobile home and to do this the young beetle uses its own filth, generated from the copious consumption of leaf litter and other detritus. The larva splits its case along the underside and then fills the gap with liberally produced faeces manipulated with its mandibles. To round the expansion off, the larva adds more faeces to the mouth of its case and then has a well-earned rest while its handiwork dries and hardens.

The case is enlarged three or four times in this way until the larva is ready to pupate. When it’s ready for the rigours of this transformation, the larva it seals itself inside its mobile home, turns around and pupates. After a couple of weeks, the beetle hatches and goes about chewing a perfect lid in the little flask of faeces that will serve as a doorway into its brief life as an adult.

Cryptocephalus decemmaculatus egg and larval cases. The egg case produced by the female to protect the egg is on the far left (Ross Piper)


Mature Crytocephalus parvulus larva inside its case. This case has been cut open to reveal the larva within. Note the heavily screlotised head capsule of the larva, which completely plugs the case aperture, the well developed legs and abdomen that is held in a 'C' shape. This larva is very near pupation and the case was sealed back up to enable it to do so. Size ~5mm.
Mature Crytocephalus parvulus larva inside its case. This case has been cut open to reveal the larva within. Note the heavily screlotised head capsule of the larva, which completely plugs the case aperture, the well developed legs and abdomen that is held in a ‘C’ shape. This larva is very near pupation and the case was sealed back up to enable it to do so. Size ~5mm (Ross Piper).


Cryptocephalus pre-pupa
The mature larva overwinters and seals the case in the following spring. It then turns around, so that its head is facing the broader, posterior end of the case. This pre-pupal stage is also characterised by a straightening and broadening of the abdomen (Cryptocephalus parvulus) (Ross Piper).
Cryptocephalus parvulus pupa 2
Eventually the pupa emerges from the pre-pupa. This stage is very short, only lasting a few days (Cryptocephalus parvulus) (Ross Piper).
Cryptocephalus parvulus adult in case
After a few days the adult beetle emerges and rests in the case for a while, perhaps to let its exoskeleton fully harden. When it’s ready to emerge the adult beetle chews its way out of the case thus making a little lid that is pushed off (Ross Piper).
Once metamorphosis is complete the adult beetle takes its leave of its mobile home by chewing a perfect lid (Ross Piper)

As interesting as these Cryptocephalus larvae are it is very unlikely you will ever see one because they hide amongst the soil and leaf litter. Here, safely concealed in their cases they look for all intents and purposes like something that comes out of the back end of a small rodent. It is possible they are mimicking small mammal droppings as these aren’t considered to be a delicacy in the animal world. Anyway, it is the pleasing, often colourful adults you are more likely to come across (see below for photos of the species you can find in the UK), but even then, many of them are very rare indeed and often occur in such small numbers that finding them is more luck than judgement. Here’s some more information on the Cryptocephalus species that are rarely encountered in the UK (PDF – PhD thesis, Chapter 3). Some species, such as C. decemmaculatus (see photos below), are only known from a single site in England.

The 18 Cryptocephalus species found in the UK
The colourful Cryptocephalus adults live for about a month and the UK species (the 18 seen here) can be found on a number of flowers (Helianthemum, small compositae, ranunculaceae, Hypericum, etc) and trees, such as birch, willow, oak and hazel (Photos taken from Dr Lech Borowiec’s excellent website –
This Cryptocephalus species, C. decemmaculatus, is only known from one site in England – where this photo was taken. The lone male in this scene is harassing the mating pair to the left as he wants a piece of the action (Ross Piper).
Cryptocephalus parvulus doing what chrysomelids do best…mating (Ross Piper.

Cryptocephalus beetles are exceptionally diverse with at least 1500 species worldwide making this genus one of the largest on the planet. Just why they are so diverse is something of mystery. They are very fussy when it comes to their habitat preferences and their long-distance flying ability isn’t much to shout about (see this PDF), factors that conspire to leave them at the mercy of reproductive isolation that in the long-term drives speciation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *