If you’ve wandered through a wood and idly peeled back the bark of a tree, you may have found a little expanse of silk, like a nest, with insects stuck inside. If you thought that those insects were the prey of a spider, you might have been right, or you might have been looking at the only known stop on an early evolutionary pathway.
Embioptera are called “webspinners” by scientists, and “ew” by everyone else. They have specialized structures on their legs that produce silk. There are no other insects, or even fossils of insects, that have the same structures. Webspinners use these silk-spinning legs to make their often communal homes. They build expanses of silk that have galleries and tunnels. The fact that they spend their whole lives in these tunnels is probably what gives the embioptera the ability to crawl backwards as fast as they can crawl forwards—Exorcist-style. And they can crawl fast, when they want to. The reason they often don’t move when you find their homes is they tend to play dead when discovered—possibly hoping whatever found them will think they’re just another sucked-dry victim of a spider.
Even quick research on embioptera gives you a wealth of disturbing details. Yes, the females do care for their young when the young are in the larval stage, but they often do so in huge, elaborate maze-like structures that only they can navigate. The males sometimes have wings, but sometimes do not. If they don’t, they have to crawl to the nearest nest to mate, and so tend to mate, over generations, with their own close relatives. Even the winged males are creepy. They have mouth parts—not mouths, mouth parts. After they’ve gone through several transformations to reach adulthood, males never eat again. Their mouth parts are solely there to grab hold of their mates for some insect sex. Once they’re done, they obligingly starve, often falling prey to their mate or her sisters in the web-maze that the females have spun.
Eh. Still better than spiders.
Images: S. Dean Rider, Jr.