The Great Pretender: Ant-Mimicking Treehoppers

So, for my first blog post, I decided to do write about the ant-mimicking treehoppers. Usually they’re just called treehoppers, or the Cyphonia clavata, but that’s really not half as descriptive  as ant-mimicking treehoppers.

I’ve never actually seen an ant-mimicking treehopper in real life. I don’t particularly think I want to.

I was actually in the middle of a search for zombie ants – ants whose mind are taken over by some specific species of fungus, bodies slowly deteriorating and being eaten alive (it can be transferred to other species of insects, too), when I accidentally stumbled upon a picture of the ant-mimicking treehopper. It was a pretty unpleasant surprise, but just grotesque enough that you can’t help but continue to stare.

At first glance, the treehopper looks like the unfortunate result of a splicing experiment, where a part of the treehopper’s head and the ant’s rear has been messily removed and attached at the ends. However, if you were to look closer, you’d actually notice that there are actually eyes growing out of the sides of the ant’s head.

Ant-mimicking treehopper (Cyphonia clavata, Membracidae), southern Venezuela

source of ant-mimicking treehopper: Arthur Anker, flickr

Creepy little bugger, isn’t it.

The ant that the treehopper chose to mimic is modeled after an ant species that’s local to the treehopper’s environment, which is usually located somewhere in Middle and South America. Those particular ants are known to be notoriously difficult to prey upon, what with all the spikes and such. The ant-like limb is backwards on the treehopper so if the treehopper moves forward, it would appear as if the ant is moving backwards. The ant would move backwards when frightened or feeling defensive, thus making potential predators of the ant (and the treehopper) think twice before eating it.

Something pretty interesting about the treehopper’s ant-shaped head is that, unlike the mimic octopus who changes its body at will, the treehopper’s body spent who knows how long modifying its body to look like the ant. I’m not really sure how it works, actually. It has something to do with suppressing genes that would manifest as working wings to allow genes that would let the treehopper modify its head. Any of the articles that made a passing mention to this was kind of vague.

The process itself, though, is called body plan innovation. It’s kind of like if humans, after generations and generations, growing a whole tail that can actually move and flex. It’s a lot rarer in evolution than modifying an existing limb.


photo link:


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