Hidden Kingdom: The Insect Life of Costa Rica.
By Piotr Naskrecki. 2017. Cornell University Press.
(ISBN: 9781501704710). 216 pp. Paperback,
When reflecting on life in the tropics, many
people visualize majestic, beautifully colored birds
flying among the trees. But Toucan play this game.
As this book reveals, there are also majestic, beautifully colored insects, the most abundant life form
in tropical habitats, hiding among the trees.
Costa Rica is a nation of insects. Entomologists
have described more than a million individual
insect species, and there may be up to 30 million
undiscovered species, many of which may inhabit
the tropics. Author Piotr Naskrecki maintains that
“there is no more fascinating, beneficial, diverse,
and breathtakingly beautiful group of organisms
than insects.” This book is a touching testimony
to the truth of his thinking.
Insects have a kind of love/hate relationship
with flowering plants. Evolutionary records dis-
play a burst of plant and insect varieties about
130 million years ago. Coevolution has resulted
in many flowering plants, including native Costa
Rican plants, depending on insects to assist in their
reproduction. While the insects are important for
plant reproduction, the plants have evolved many
ways to repel those that would feed on them. It is
interesting that when a plant species evolves a sub-
stance or structure deadly to insects, the insect
genes generate new ways of overcoming plant
defenses. This back-and-forth process increases
speciation rates in both plants and insects.
While Costa Rican insects belong to the
same groups found in other parts of the world,
there are countless unique differences in diversity, morphology, behavior, life cycles, and food
sources. One chapter of the book features a useful catalog of insect orders, as well as related
groups such as arachnids, centipedes, millipedes, and crustaceans. Each section provides
descriptive biological attributes, information on
the group’s prevalence in Costa Rica, and photographs of group representatives. Readers will
enjoy the striking rainbow of colors displayed
by creatures such as the bright green rhinoceros
katydid; the multicolored lantern bug; the brilliant yellow, orange, and black tiger moth; the
gold and turquoise shield bug; and the glistening blue morpho butterfly, as well as many
others. The colorful patterns of some insects
warn predators with the message “Stay away or
I may hurt you.”
Consider some of the nuggets that make this
book difficult to put down. Most insects are not
dangerous to humans and try to avoid us. Some
have defense mechanisms, but the real dangers of
many insects are pathogens that they may transmit to humans. For example, bot flies are parasitic to humans. The females lay their eggs on
mosquitoes, which then drop the bot fly larvae
on humans, resulting in the larvae crawling into
the tunnels made by the mosquito mouthparts.
The larvae consume human skin and then drop
from the host to the soil to complete their meta-
morphosis. Whip scorpions demonstrate elabo-
rate courtship rituals involving slow dancing,
tender caressing, and hand holding. The acoustic
activity of insects fills the forests with a variety of
sounds (clicks, chirps, crackling, buzzing, etc.),
used to attract mates, scare off predators, and
fend off rivals. Depending on the sounds’ fre-
quencies, though, to human ears some insect
sounds are truly the sounds of silence. Insects
are believed to use light from the moon and stars
for navigating at night. Wing scales of butterflies
and moths are defense structures, making the
wings slippery and thus making it difficult for
predators to get a grip on the body. Considerable
social activity is common in some insect species.
In termite societies, each member has a role that
lasts its entire life. Paper wasp colonies, consist-
ing only of females, also show a division of labor,
with only one member (the “foundress”) being
capable of laying eggs. Leafcutter ant colony
members are gardeners, growing fungi for the
adults and larvae. Many tropical insects are “mas-
ters of deception,” disappearing during the day-
time because they are “accomplished mimics.”
They hide well among plant leaves, mosses,
twigs, decaying wood, and lichens. The mimicry
is so perfect that one biologist cut off part of a
katydid’s body to prove that it had real lichens
on it. It didn’t.
Though a paperback, this is a large, high-quality volume that might qualify as a coffee-table
book. Every page details interesting facts and contains strikingly attractive photographs of insects
and their kin, showing features that would be
missed on casual viewing of the insects themselves. The book contains a comprehensive index.
College, high school, and middle school students,
as well as the general public, are likely to find Hidden Kingdom fascinating and informative.
Retired Biology Teacher
Presque Isle High School
Presque Isle, ME 04769
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 81, No. 8, pp. 591–593, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2019 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.8.591.
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