Friday, February 12, 2016

Snowflake Beetle

Snowflake Beetles, linocut with chine collé 18 cm x 18 cm, Ele Willoughby 2016
This is a whimsical mini lino block print of a couple of Snowflake Beetles a widely unknown, and quite possibly, completely imaginary creature. These miniscule insects are camouflaged to match their environment, the fresh fallen snow. Each of their hexagonal shields (the elytra) are disguised as snowflakes. Through an extraordinary instance of biomimicry, each pattern is as unique; it is believed that no two Snowflake Beetles are the same.*

Both their minute size and their successful camouflage adaptation have long hid the Snowflake Beetle from discovery. The Coleopterans include more species than any other order, and the diversity of beetles is very wide. Yet, the Snowflake Beetle is exceptional in several ways. At a typical size of 1.5 m (0.06"), they belong to the Ptiliidae, a highly diverse yet poorly known group of minute beetles, and are amongst the smallest beetles anywhere in the world. Like other ptiliids they have feathery wings and are colourless to white throughout their lifecycle. But unlike any other beetles, they thrive in high latitudes, high altitudes and polar regions where snow is abundant. Other arthopods do live in snow, including mites, snow fleas and some spiders, but insects and beetles in particular were previously unknown in such cold conditions. It is believed that they make a warm little burrow or igloo in the snow and farm fungus for food. Like aquatic beetles, it is believed they hold a pocket of air between their abdomen and elytra (the snowflake shield) to breathe when "diving" in snow.

*It should be noted that the adage "no two snowflakes are alike" is in fact just an adage. It is virtually impossible to prove the non-existence of any naturally occuring snowflake twins. Simple hollow collumn snowflakes are quite common and observers do report (subjectively) identical flakes. Essentially identical snowflakes - even complex ones with hexagonal plate symmetry and elaborate dendrites - have been produced in the lab. While photographic evidence of naturally occurring identical snowflakes may be lacking, it's actually unlikely that they never occur. So, strictly speaking it is more precise to say that Snowflake Beetles are as variable in pattern as snowflakes in nature. Familiar snowflake forms including hexagonal plates, triangular patterns, 12-point star patterns, sectored plates, radiating dendrites, simple stars, stellar dendrites and fern-like stellar dendrites have all been observed on Snowflake Beetle shields. The six-fold symmetry, as in snowflakes themselves, is generally not perfect... though it may appear so at a glance.

An aside: Okay... the joy of my producing my "quite possibly imaginary" cryptozoology creature series is in inventing the fictional science and I would love to produce a book of them where I never explicitly stated this is SF. The point is to make a sort of scientific pastiche. The reader isn't literally supposed to be hoodwinked**... but needs to suspend disbelief to enjoy it. But, allow me to stop being coy and tell you a bit about the process of creating creatures. Hitting the balance of 'not quite plausible enough to fool' but 'real enough for us all to pleasurably pretend it's out there' is harder than I imagined, for an unexpected reason. Namely, the animal kingdom is a hell of a lot weirder and more varied than most of us know. For instance, I can safely assume that my far-out hybrids, like the Cactibou, Winged Walrus and Mandriltee, will be recognized as unreal animals. Though, hybrids are more common than I realized when I started this project. Merely playing with scale, habitat and amping up more unusual skills like biomimicry on the other hand, may not be enough. I think I inadvertently fooled someone with my Iceberg Squid. Likewise, I imagined the Snowflake Beetle, only to later learn that, of course, there are arthopods who live in snow... luckily for me, they happen to have the wrong number of legs to be insects or beetles in particular. I shouldn't be too surprised. A recent study which got a lot of press, showed that even our homes are complex biomes filled with thousands of insects and other arthopods. They're everywhere! Sometimes, like here, I rely on one peculiar, someone would say magical, attribute to indicate that the animal in question is "quite possibly imaginary". In this case, the idea that each one has its own pattern, as unique as a snowflake, may be the only thing which is unlikely enough to be untrue. Other "facts" are indeed true of existing beetles, including the surprising act of fungus farming or holding air bubbles under their elytra wing covering to breathe if submerged. The beetle igloo though might also be a tip-off.

**Friends will tell you I'm generally horrified when anyone is hoodwinked by pseudoscience, whatever its intentions.