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Earwigs — not lovely bugs but mostly harmless

May 16, 2015
Can't tell back from front like that other bug from Volkswagen.

Hard to tell which end is which, a bit like that other bug made by Volkswagen.

The tiny common earwig seemed out of place when it wandered onto the apron of the parkade where I sleep.

He was known to much prefer damp, dark, dingy crawl spaces to dry, brightly lit spans of concrete (the curved mandible-like forceps distinguished it as a male of the insect species Forficula auricularia).

And, properly speaking, the crawl spaces should be in Europe. The common European earwig is an invasive species, introduced into North America in 1907 by human beings (another invasive species).

It’s interesting how—for mostly commercial reasons—we complain about the successful spread of some “invasive” species, even as we send other species off to extinction—again for mostly commercial reasons—but a bit more on that later.

Earwigs are so-named because of a fearful old belief that the wee insects would enter people’s brains through their ears and, I don’t know, introduce all sorts of impure thoughts, like a Medieval Babel fish or something.

Earwigs aren’t just mostly harmless to people but completely so. They have no sting or bite. The worst they can do is pinch you firmly with their little forceps.

Those fierce-looking forceps pincers, or cerci, are located on the rear end of their muscular abdomens and are used for hunting, fighting, defending and having sex—though not necessarily in that order.

Earwigs are considered to be an undesirable pest insect because of the damage that large concentrations of them can do to all sorts of agricultural crops and because they excrete a foul-smelling liquid when threatened. And (if for no other reason) because they are tiny creepy crawlies that make most of us cringe.

Earwigs are preyed upon by a very wide variety of other life forms, such as fungi, many other species of insects and birds, birds and more birds!

If nothing else earwigs form a small but vital link in the food chain—not a very good job to have perhaps but one that still very much needs doing.

The ineffable mystery of the giant earwig

A female specimen of abidura herculeana. -- public domain

A female specimen of abidura herculeana. Another one bites the dust. — public domain

In the late Douglas Adam’s quintrilogy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, specifically the fourth book: Mostly Harmless (1992), there is reference, in the religion espoused by Old Thrashbarg, to “the ineffable mystery of the giant earwig”. This is Adams having yet another go at religion in his fiction but, in fact, there is a real species of giant earwig, or at least there was, until last year.

In August of 2014 The International Union for the Conservation of Nature took the Saint Helena giant earwig (Labidura herculeana) from the Critically Endangered list and officially declared the species extinct.

This singular species of earwig, which grew to an astounding length (for earwigs) of 84 mm (3.3 in), was unique to the tropical volcanic island of Saint Helena, located in the South Atlantic Ocean. The existence of the uber earwig was first documented on the island by a Danish entomologist in 1798.

The giant earwig’s extinction is being credited to the removal, for use in human construction, of the large rocks and boulders that they lived under. The last confirmed sighting of a live adult Labidura herculeana was way back in May of 1967.

Conservationists apparently crossed their fingers and waited and watched but after 47 years they finally gave up hope  and last year declared the Saint Helena giant earwig totally extinct.

In 2014 a total of 11 animal species were declared totally extinct. Click the top image to enlarge it.

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