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How Do You Do, Fellow Termites?

A side-view of a rove beetle with a swollen body that resembles a termite.
Bruno Zilberman

So it's come to this. My jig? Up. My ruse? So joever. After my beetle ancestors successfully infiltrated termite mounds across Australia, paving the way for their lucky descendants, myself included, to live peacefully amidst a sea of doting termites who waited on us foot and foot, and fed us torrents of regurgitated liquids, I have finally been unmasked. Despite my thoroughly termitic appearance, I am not a termite, but a rove beetle in disguise as a termite.

Are you really so surprised? A quarter of all animal species known to science are beetles. Look into the mirror. Are you so sure you're not a beetle yourself?

I would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for two scientists named Bruno Zilberman and Carlos M. Pires-Silva, who were so bold as to publish an exposé of my true identity, Austrospirachtha carrijoi, in the prestigious, paywalled pages of the journal Zootaxa: "A new species and morphological notes on the remarkable termitophilous genus Austrospirachtha Watson from Australia." At least they called me remarkable—I'll take that as a win.

In this paper they present their case against me, accusing me of reshaping my entire abdomen to resemble the bulbous white body of a termite, going so far as to develop three pairs of dangling pseudo-appendages as a flourish of realism. They revealed my minuscule mouth parts, which are so teensy that the scientists hypothesize I must beg food from my termite hosts as opposed to eating the termite eggs or larvae as a bigger-mouthed imposter might be inclined to do. And the scientists published photos of my real head, which is tiny and brown and tucked under the puppet. Can you imagine my shock? Even the fanciest termite mound has no mirrors. I've never seen my face before, and now you're telling me I have two of them?

I would not go so far as to deny any of these outlandish claims, for they are all true.

Why go through the trouble of evolving a fake termite on your back without adding some fake legs and antennae to bolster the disguise? Individual termites may lack memory and the ability to learn, but they're not dumb. And you must admit that from above the illusion is perfect. I'm giving termite!

A bird's eye view of the termite puppet on top of a rove beetle.
Credit: Bruno Zilberman

Hear me out. Have you ever committed to a bit so hard that it gained some degree of truth? For all my life, I have been living with and amongst termites. I walk among them. Termites are blind, but they can feel me, or at least the termite-like part of me. I might even absorb their chemicals to become even more convincingly undercover. If there are other rove beetles like me in my colony, other beetles that also call this beautiful mound home, I could not pick them out of a sea of termites. Nor would they be able to recognize me, for my puppet is simply too good! I pass so well that termites constantly feed me and other castes in our colony their regurgitated juice meals, which I slurp happily with my puny mouthparts. It is a sweet life—or, at least it was, until these two scientists outed me.

What's a free meal or two in a colony of millions of termites? Other rove beetles have pulled off this infiltration with a lot more bloodshed. At least 12 species of parasitic rove beetles have evolved to resemble army ants. They smell like them, act like them, and even set out on raids with them. And yet these beetles do not receive free meals of mouth juice. These beetles eat their neighbors' babies—tiny eggs and soft larvae of ants that will not live long enough to know leg. I would never impose my own subjective notions of morality on others, but, c'mon, this makes my free regurgitated smoothies look pretty good in comparison!

And before you call me a "freeloader" or "mooch"—"parasite" is fine, because that's technically true—let me state for the record that this whole evolving a hyperealistic termite puppet on top of my literal back was not my idea. None of us have any say in evolution, however much we'd like to. You think if given the choice, I wouldn't evolve some kind of ironclad body armor or a big sexy horn or beautiful flappy wings? Of course I would have! To borrow the caste system of the 2005 movie Sky High, those beetles are the superheroes of our entire order, the snazziest, most powerful of the bunch. They are the beetles that make the papers and nature documentaries. But not I. I am a sidekick beetle, armed not with superstrength or flight but instead a hyperrealistic termite puppet on my back. This is not a cool ability. But I have accepted my lot in life, and I have no shame about my weird and unusual body. I am a beautiful termite and a beautiful beetle.

If one day my beloved termite community discovers that I am a sham, I will bow before them under the weight of my massive termite puppet and accept my fate. Let them tear me to shreds! Let them turn me into mouth juice! I will die living my truth, which is that I have lived a life as a termite, and it was a good one. But my fate is for the termites to decide, and as far as I know, they do not read nor subscribe to Zootaxa, which is no doubt a very fine publication. But until that day comes, let me and my back puppet scuttle away in peace and without judgment. I'm hungry! Who's got my juice?

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