Babies turn loner beetles into ‘helicopter moms’

The leaf beetle's active mothering is critical to the survivability of the next generation, says Caroline Chaboo. "If she is removed or lost, all the babies die." Above: A female beetle (Paraselenis dichroa) guards an egg clutch. Photo: (Credit: Fernando Frieiro-Costa)

The instinct for mothers to protect and nurture offspring shows up in many species, including some female leaf beetles, researchers say.

“Maternal care is a phenomenal behavior, whether it’s a beetle, a shark, or a monkey,” says Caroline Chaboo, a researcher at the University of Kansas and author of a study published in the Journal of Natural History.

“The investment of mothers with their time, their vigilance, their grooming and cleaning, finding and providing food, putting their own lives at risk, often not eating for themselves—it’s remarkable that parental care is so one-sided.”

Dubbed by scientists as “subsociality,” active parenting among leaf beetles is notable because the insects usually live out their lives alone, without the more complex social behavior seen in bees, ants, wasps and termites—which scientists call “eusociality.”

The exception to the loner’s life of a beetle is motherhood, where the solitary insects become more like “helicopter moms.”

“A leaf beetle mother will keep an eye on the eggs, grooming and guarding them,” Chaboo says. “She will oversee her herd of larvae as they eat, while she keeps watch for flying attackers, like wasps, and also pedestrian attackers, like ants.

“She moves between the attacker and the babies, and will stamp her foot and try to shoo off the intruder.”

The leaf beetle’s active mothering is critical to the survivability of the next generation, Chaboo says.

“If she is removed or lost, all the babies die. It’s pretty crucial that she is around to ensure some of the offspring survive and reach adulthood.”

Source: University of Kansas