Insect erections (1997)
Inspecting insect penises to distinguish between cotton destroying moth species.
What you are seeing here is the erect penis of an insect. But don’t be offended.
You’re not about to see an In-Sex movie. For although it may appear as if it’s ready for action, it is in fact very, very dead.
One of the frustrations for scientists working with insects is that many similar species look exactly the same, even under a microscope. And often the best way to distinguish them is to look at the tiny differences in the shape of their genitalia.
For instance, two species of Helicoverpa moths cause billions of dollars worth of damage to the Australian cotton industry each year.
One of them is an expert at developing resistance to insecticides, but the other isn’t. So growers need to know which is which before they spray. Because if they get it wrong, it’s expensive and causes one of the Helicoverpa pests to develop resistance even faster.
Scientists have known for over 100 years that insect genitalia provide some of the best clues to their classification. But examining them once the insect is dead is often a difficult task, so they devised what is called a Phalloblaster…
“The Phalloblaster inflates the genitalia with a stream of pressurised alcohol to create the same shape as when the insect was alive.”
The alcohol dehydrates and hardens the structure, so that once the process is over the genetalia remain inflated rather like miniature balloons. It makes them easier to study.
The development of the Phalloblaster, or vesica everter, is being met with excitement from universities, museums and insect research centres.
Because not only is it helping to find a way to save the cotton industry, it can also be used by entomologists in many other areas of research around the world.