How Genital Stingers Give Male Wasps Some Sexual Equality

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The new research confirms decades of anecdotes from the field, according to Justin O. Schmidt, a scientist at the University of Arizona and author of “The Sting of the Wild,” who was not involved in the study. “Any of us who go out in the field and catch insects have caught one of these things, we grab it, and it curls around and tries to sting us,” he said.

But males’ use of their pseudo-stings could simply be another act of mimicry of female behavior. “Of course he can’t sting, but he’s trying to fake you out,” Dr. Schmidt said. “So you look at it and say, ‘Oh, wow, this is a female, bad news.’ I think it’s a form of startle as much as an absolute defense.”

Maybe what matters isn’t that the male wasps can’t actually sting, but that they’ve evolved these pseudo-stings, said Akito Y. Kawahara, an insect curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the study.

“Several million years back, probably these things were not functional at all, and I think over many millions of years more it will probably become more perfected,” Dr. Kawahara said, adding, “It’s sort of like we’re seeing evolution in action.”

And it’s a completely different way of looking at the role of genitalia.

“An organ that’s typically just used for sex or mating, you know, is co-opted to have all these other functions because the insects need it,” Dr. Kawahara said. He has shown that, similarly, hawkmoths use their genitalia to produce ultrasound that jams the sonars of predating bats.

More research is needed to understand this morphing, but this experiment gives reason to believe it’s widespread in wasps around the world.

“I think we’re going to see more cases like that,” Dr. Kawahara said. “It’s just the beginning.”