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Insect inspirations in pop culture — Nancy Miorelli and Joanie Mars at Dragon Con 2018

“Take that, vertebrates!”

Bugs don’t look right. They don’t have fur and refuse to purr when you scratch them behind the ears. With those herky-jerky movement, big eyes and all those legs, they almost look like aliens.

“Actually, aliens look like bugs,” said entomologist Nancy Miorelli at the “Insects: Aliens on Earth” panel at the Science Track of this year’s Dragon Con in Atlanta, Ga.

Miorelli, who works in ecological tourism in Ecuador — and is better known to Twitter denizens as @SciBugs — was joined by entomology Ph.D student Joanie Mars, both of whom are part of the popular “Ask an Entomologist” blog. They were in town to talk about the insectoid inspirations in your favorite movies and TV series, beyond just The Fly, Alien and Starship Troopers.

Not just aliens themselves, but their ships can look like bugs, too! Like the Chitauri Leviathan!

“A lot of aliens in Star Wars are inspired by insects,” said Mars, and it’s not just the Krillik and the Geonosians. Did you know the Sarlacc was based a real, predatory insect?

An insect larva, actually. The juvenile antlion builds a conical trap in the sand — a pit, if you will — and waits for unsuspecting prey to stumble into its steep trap. If the future food doesn’t fall all the way, the antlion larva will flick sand at it, knocking it down and undermining the sides of the cone at the same time, sending the prey tumbling down into the antlion’s jaws.

Even roleplaying games get in on the arthropod action, with races like the Shirren in Starfinder. The Shirren have a huge lower jaw that opens down, much like the labial mask of dragonfly nymphs (seriously, what is it about young insects?) that can extend out and capture prey. Miorrelli was particularly excited about a photo of this.

“That’s an insect eating a fish,” she said. “Take that, vertebrates!”

One entertainment trope that most people don’t always connect with insect behavior is mind control. Think of the fungus in the video game The Last of Us, which turns people into zombie-like creatures. “If you think this is purely science fiction, you are wrong,” Miorelli said.

The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus will take control of an ant and make it find high ground, where spores will burst from its body and cover more area. Ant species affected by this have learned the signs, and when one of their own starts acting funny, they grab it and get it the hell out of there, because one exploding ant zombie can wipe out a whole colony.

Paras and Parasect

Paras and Parasect are Pokémon that have similarly been infected by a fungus. Incidentally, the entirety of the Pokémon franchise is inspired by the insect-collecting founder Satoshi Tajiri did as child in a rural town, as he wanted to bring that same experience to everyone.

Miorelli recounted another real-life example of insect mind control, that of the emerald jewel wasp, the sting of which shuts off the dopamine response of a cockroach, making it docile and unafraid of its assailant. The wasp will then “literally walk the cockroach like a dog to a burrow,” where the wasp will lay eggs in it and seal it inside until the larvae hatch and eat the uninterested roach alive.

Mars’ research also focuses on mind control, and it’s a story she’d like to see hit the big screen someday. Decapitator flies force an ant to stop foraging and hole up while larva grow inside it. The ant is then instructed to leave the colony, after which the new flies secrete a still-unknown liquid that causes the head to fall off so the they can come crawling out.

Coming soon to a theater near you?


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