A new species of wasp is named after the soul-sucking dementors from the Harry Potter books. The dementor wasp, or Ampulex dementor, belongs to the family of cockroach wasps (Ampulicidae). These wasps sting cockroaches in order to paralyze them, so their larvae can feed on the living cockroaches.
The Dementors from Harry Potter are fictional creatures that deliver a Dementor’s Kiss in order to consume a person’s soul. The victim is left in an irreversible vegetative state, a fate considered worse than death.
The dementor wasp’s sting resembles the Dementor’s Kiss, inhibiting certain behaviors of the cockroach, so it doesn’t flee. The cockroach is partly paralyzed and doesn’t resist when the dementor wasp pulls it by its antennae. Just like with the victim of the fictional Dementor, the cockroach’s free will is permanently gone. Although it’s alive, its body is just a non-responding, empty shell.
Even more interesting is the way the dementor wasp was named. The Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin asked visitors of the museum to vote on a name. They could choose from four options and in my opinion they chose the coolest. The museum named the wasp through voting in order to engage visitors in biodiversity research. I think they did a great job.
However, this is not the first time an animal is named after a fictional character. The jumping spider Bagheera kiplingi is named after the vegetarian black panther Bagheera from Jungle Book, because the spider, like Bagheera, has a mostly herbivorous diet, which is unique for a spider. There is also an arachnid named Draculoides bramstokeri, a name I assume doesn’t require further explanation. Other recognizable examples include the spider Hortipes terminator, the fish Otocinclus batmani, the hexapod Gollumjapyx smeagol, the wasp Polemistus chewbacca, the genus of mites Darthvaderum and, while we’re on a Star Wars spree anyway, the trilobite Han solo.
Araneus diadematus, also known as the garden spider or the cross spider, is a well-known and common orb-weaving, true spider from Europe and North-America. The females can become quite big, reaching a considerable 2 cm, and therefore strike out in gardens when they are hanging upside down in their large webs. They are mostly spotted at the end of the summer or in fall, as the mature spiders and their webs reach their maximum size by then. The cross on the dorsal side of the abdomen is what makes this species such a recognizable spider. The white cross is a result of cells accumulated with guanine, which is a byproduct of protein metabolism.
Like in many spiders, there is a strong sexual dimorphism in the garden spider. Adult females are bigger than adult males and have a much larger abdomen. In order to reproduce, the male must approach the female carefully, so he won’t be mistaken for prey. In contrary to popular belief, it is not true that the female will always consume the male after mating, although it is possible to occur. Many males will achieve to fertilize several females. After mating, the female lays eggs. She will most probably not survive the winter, but the egg sac will. The spiderlings hatch in spring and stay together for about a week. After that, they spread out, build webs, catch prey, grow into adults and the cycle starts over again. Growth is only possible by molting: the spider will have to shed its hard exoskeleton (the cuticle) in order to grow.
The garden spider uses a wheel-shaped web to catch prey. This web is rebuilt every night. Little prey will be ignored, but the web of an adult spider is able to catch large prey like wasps, bee and even butterflies. The spider will know when a prey is entangled by signal threads and rush to the prey to bite it and wrap it in silk. It is truly a spectacle to see how agile the garden spider will move across its web. The garden spider is one of the few spider species in Northern Europe large enough to bite through human skin, but it will not do so quickly, and furthermore, the bite is completely harmless.