5 Mysterious Structures from the World’s Smallest Architects

015 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsBagworm moth larva (Psychidae)

Singapore-based photographer Nicky Bay is the master of capturing the micro-world, photographing insects typically passed over without acknowledgement or recognition.

“The rainforest is a giant trove of mysteries. When zooming into the micro world, I saw natural creations which appear so man-made, that they have to be showcased here as nature’s smallest architects. This post will showcase the log cabin, jungle tent, cage fortress, poop barricade, and the mysterious web tower.

Most of the photos here were shot in Singapore, with the exception of Architect #4 from Malaysia and Architect #5 from Peru. I have more questions than answers here. Hopefully someone with the expertise can share their knowledge with us here. :)

Special thanks to Jeff Cremer from Rainforest Expeditions for kindly allowing me to use some photos for Architect #5! ” Nicky Bay

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Architect #1: The Log Cabin

025 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsBagworm moth larva (Psychidae)
The larva of this bagworm moth encases itself with a beautiful spiral pyramid of twigs as it grows, starting from smaller twigs when young, and stacking larger twigs from the bottom as it grows.

Amazingly, the stacked spiral is done so neatly that it looks almost man-made and resembles a log cabin. This is the same log cabin as above, and there is no discernable difference when viewed from other angles. How did it manage to create such symmetry? How did it get branches of just the right size to create the log cabin?

035 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsBagworm moth larva (Psychidae)
The symmetry does not seem to be practised by all specimens. This one appeared to be stacked haphazardly, but there is still an obvious progression of thickness of the “logs”.

045 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsBagworm moth pupa (Psychidae)
This one had an exceptionally long base log. Is it possible that it was in the process of “sawing” it off to the right length?

055 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsBagworm moth larva (Eumeta sp. – ID by Roger Kendrick)
Not all log cabins are stacked in a pyramid fashion. Some lay the branches out in parallel to create a cylindrical fortress sticking out almost vertically from the leaf or branch surface.

065 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsBagworm moth larva (Eumeta sp. – ID by Roger Kendrick)
Some, however, appear to be laid out lazily on a branch. Perhaps this one was in the process of “upgrading” its log cabin?

075 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsBagworm moth empty coccoon (Eumeta sp. – ID by Roger Kendrick)
Bagworms can be subjected to parasitoids too. Some tachinids may lay their eggs in the psychid larvae, and take over the host when the log cabin is built. Is this a result of a parasitoid or the leftover cocoon of a successfully emerged male bagworm moth?

Architect #2: Jungle Tent

095 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest Architects

Bagworm larva (Psychidae)
Not all bagworms make use of branches and twigs to build their protective cases. This psychid makes use of dead leaves and layers them into a tent.

105 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest Architects

Bagworm moth larva (Psychidae)
Covered by layers of silk, we can see a bit of what looked like the larva beneath the tent. This could also be the leftover case of an emerged bagworm moth.

115 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest Architects

Bathworm moth larva (Psychidae)
Some tents are highly elongated, much like the Eiffel Tower. In some parts of the world, they called this the jungle pagoda.

125 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest Architects

Bagworm moth larva (Psychidae)
And some are just… artistically messy.

135 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsBagworm Moth (Amatissa sp. – ID by Roger Kendrick)
While female bagworms never leave their constructed cases, the males will eventually emerge as adult moths through the tip of the casing

Architect #3: Cage Fortress

145 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest Architects

Arctiine moth pupa (Cyana sp.)
Moths of the Cyana genus pupate in a constructed cage woven from the caterpillar’s hairs or spines, with every cross-section held together with silk.

155 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsMoth (Cyana sp.)
The caterpillar sports lengthy hairs which would be used to construct the cage when it is ready to pupate

165 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsArctiine moth pupa (Cyana sp.)
The cage has an open square mesh. As single strands of hair are not long enough, the caterpillar attaches the hairs end-to-end to construct the side of the cage

175 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsArctiine moth pupa (Cyana sp.)
The caterpillar suspends itself in the middle of the cage with silk for a good buffer from the cage surface. The mesh of curved setae (hairs) is remarkably strong, and will spring back into shape when pressure is exerted by probing predators on it while leaving the pupa safe and sound

185 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsArctiine moth pupa (Cyana sp.)
This pupa is almost ready to emerge, with the eyes, antennae and wings already visible. Interestingly, while the actual emergence has never been recorded in video, the pupa is able to exit the cage before emergence as the shell has always been found outside the cage. It appears that the 2 sharper ends of the cage are not woven together, and allows for a one-directional exit for the pupa

195 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest Architects

Moth (Cyana sp.)
This is what an adult Cyana moth looks like.

205 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsArctiine moth pupa (Cyana sp.)
Despite the strong physical properties of the cage, it is not fully protected against other predators, especially parasitoids which can lay eggs into the caterpillars in the larval stage before the cage is built. Some parasitoids lay eggs in the foliage in hope that they would be consumed by caterpillars which will act as their hosts

215 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsArctiine moth pupa (Cyana sp.)
Some may also be infected by cordyceps fungus in the process

Architect #4: Poop Barricade

225 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest Architects

Poop barricade
I have only encountered this weird looking structure once. It appears to be a pupa wrapped with intricately woven layers of mesh, and finally surrounded by a barricade of black substance which I am assuming to be poop from the caterpillar during the larval stage. Does using a poop wall enhance its defense strategy? Does it emit a smell to turn predators off?? Nobody knows… yet!

Architect #5: Web Tower

235 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest Architects

Web tower structure ©2015 Jeff Cremer
Deep in a tiny island formed in the middle of the Amazonian River in Peru, a mysterious silk structure was discovered and had baffled scientists on what built it. It had a central tower with supporting silk lines, surrounded by an intricate silken fence. Entomologists believed it to be an egg sac of sorts.

245 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest Architects

Web tower structure ©2015 Jeff Cremer
In 2013, a group of scientists traveled to the Peruvian Amazon to unravel this mystery. They collected samples and allowed it to hatch, and it revealed a cute little spider!

255 Mysterious Structures from the World's Smallest ArchitectsWeb tower structure ©2015 Jeff Cremer
Til date, the ID of the spider is still unknown as the juveniles do not exhibit any characteristic features of any specific family yet. If you are keen to be the one to decipher the biology of this mysterious spider, contact Rainforest Expeditions to arrange a trip to Collpa Island and keep me updated!! :

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