Getting the Most Out of Your Zombie: Abdominal Sensors and Neural Manipulations Help Jewel Wasps Find the Roach's Weak Spot

Brain Behav Evol. 2020;95(3-4):181-202. doi: 10.1159/000511548. Epub 2020 Oct 30.


The parasitoid emerald jewel wasp (Ampulex compressa) subdues the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) with a sting to the 1st thoracic ganglion, followed by a sting to the roach's brain, causing long-term pacification. The wasp then leads the cockroach to a hole where it lays an egg on the roach middle leg before barricading the entrance and departing. Although many aspects of the wasp's initial attack have been investigated, few studies have detailed the egg-laying process and the subsequent fate of the larvae. Here I show that larval survival depends on precise egg positioning on the cockroach by the female wasp. Ablation of sensory hairs on the wasp's abdomen resulted in mislaid eggs, which seldom survived. In addition, the cockroach femur may block the oviposition site. The wasp contended with this challenge with a newly discovered suite of stings, 3 directed into the 2nd thoracic ganglion which resulted in extension of the femur, thus exposing the oviposition site and removing a potential barrier to the wasp's successful reproduction. When the femur was glued in place, the wasp stung the cockroach over 100 times, in an apparent fixed action pattern triggered by the obscured oviposition target. These findings highlight the importance of proper egg placement by the wasp, and reveal sensors and new neural manipulations that facilitate the process.

Keywords: Active sensing; Adaptation; Animal behavior; Behavioral evolution; Brain; Evolution; Jewel wasp; Motor control; Neuroethology; Sting.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.