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A strange looking beetle known as the tortoise beetle is now known for digesting pectin. A plant’s cell wall is made up of pectin and most mammals are unable to digest this material. According to Hassan Salem who is the lead author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow in Emory University’s Department of Biology, tortoise beetles are often referred to as leaf-eaters. These beetles can eat leaves with no problem because they possess a bacteria that digests leaf material. Amazingly, some tortoise beetles were found with specialized forms of this bacteria present within their bodies.

As far as researchers can tell, this beetle possesses two internal organs that are side-by-side and can break down pectin. These organs are referred to as Cassida rubiginosa and they function much like the liver functions in a human being. The genome of this bacteria only contains two hundred and seventy thousand base pairs, which is far less than the millions that are in most bacterial strains. Due to its relatively low amount of base pairs pectin, is more like intracellular bacteria than microbes.

Some species of tortoise beetles, both larvae and adult, are destructive to garden plants and sweet potatoes. In Central America, these beetles will lay eggs in one small area. Then the offspring will pupate together. These beetles tend to stick close to home, which is probably wise given their small size. In fact, some tortoise beetles have been found mating and hunting on the very same leaf where the beetles hatched upon. Since these insects are so sedentary they have become targets for certain types of parasites and other insect predators. However, the beetles will sometimes survive thanks to a female. Female beetles tend to be protective of smaller tortoise beetle specimens, which is a rare behavior for insects.

Have you ever spotted a tortoise beetle?


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