In the undisturbed lowland rainforests of the Nouragues Reserve in Central French Guiana, there are fighter squadrons of birds making bombing runs on wasp nests. Evading repeated stings and knocking whole nests right out of trees, red-throated caracaras are nature’s own Falco Lombardis.
Before entomologist Sean McCann and his team started catching caracaras in the Nouragues Reserve, scientists suggested that the dive-bombing birds were employing some kind of chemical defense to get into wasp nests without being stung to death – wasps and their larvae account for well-over half of caracara chick’s diets.
However, such strong chemical deterrents have rarely been documented in birds. Something else had to be going on. So McCann and other scientists went to the reserve to test the idea that something on or coming from the birds was a wasp repellant. They swabbed the birds’ feathers, faces, and feet for the correct chemicals, but they found no evidence of chemical warfare.
Instead, the caracaras were observed literally falcon-kicking wasp nests fast and hard, while evading stings with complicated fight maneuvers – just like Falco.
Red-throated Caracara Ibycter americanus, taken at the Nouragues Research station in Central French Guiana, April 2011. Credit: Sean McCann
Falco Lombardi may be an actual falcon or a pheasant depending on what geeky forum you find yourself in, but the Star Fox comrade’s name likely implies the scientific genus “Falco,” a group of avian dinosaurs (isn’t that awesome?) that includes falcons, kestrels, and caracaras. All of these birds posses the eyesight and hunting prowess you might expect a star pilot to have. Among them, the red-throated caracara might be the closest visual match.
But the caracara is also a match for Falco’s guts and tactics. McCann’s team tested for more than just chemicals while capturing the blood-eyed birds. They set up a wasp strike-zone underneath the rainforest canopy to find out how caracaras could outwit hundreds of angry stingers.
Above (starting at 4:00), McCann observed repeated caracara strikes on wasp nests carefully placed on an artificial structure outfitted with video cameras. The birds aren’t shy, they aren’t cautious – they slam directly into wasp armies at speed (and if you look closely you can see wasps rushing out to intercept the incoming attack). But why take the risk? It turns out that the caracaras have evolved to feed on wasps with a very specific behavior. Unlike temperate-zone paper wasps, for example, which don’t abandon their hives, neotropical wasps like those found in Central French Guiana will swarm together and fly off to find a new nest if some catastrophe befalls their home.
Larger wasp species seemingly can repel caracara attacks, McCann writes in the study published in PLOSone, but strategically abandoning a nest may be the only way to ensure the hive can survive. Caracaras and these wasps are locked in an evolutionary battle over a metaphorical Corneria, with Falco Lombardis shaping the ecology of their prey, forcing fighters to another planet for another battle.
Scientists have not yet observed any caracara tactics resembling a barrel roll, however.
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
IMAGES: Nintendo; Sean McCann