Mauna Kea's Wekiu Bug

From the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory:

          "'Wekiu'" is the Hawaiian word for top or summit. This
          name was given to Mauna Kea's tallest cinder cone, which
          reaches 13,796 feet in elevation and is the highest in the
          Hawaiian archipelago. Life on the Mauna Kea summit must
          endure freezing temperatures, winter snow falls, and,
          occasionally, hurricane-force winds. The centers of the
          summit cones on Mauna Kea are permanently frozen to just
          a few feet below the surface. Only lichens and some
          mosses grow scattered on the tops of rocks. Until recently
          these cold stone fields were thought to be devoid of
          resident animal life.

          An unusual new bug was first discovered in 1980 by
          biologists searching for insects under stones on Pu`u
          Wekiu. Although known to scientists as Nysius wekiuicola,
          this "seed bug" in the family Lygaeidae was given the
          common name "wekiu bug" to highlight the unusual location
          where these insects live. As their familiar name implies,
          most seed bugs feed on seeds by piercing their straw-like
          mouth parts into the inner seed tissue and sucking it out.
          However, since no native seed-bearing plants live in the
          summit area of Mauna Kea, it was clear to biologists that
          these insects must be tapping into a different food source
          than their close relatives.

          Entomologists studied the ecology of the wekiu bug to find
          out how it could survive in such an extreme and hostile
          environment. Unlike their seed-feeding relatives, the wekiu
          bugs consume other dead and dying insects that get carried
          upslope by winds and deposited at the summit. The bugs
          search under rocks and across ash flows for fresh,
          wind-blown carcasses. They then use their piercing
          mouth-parts to puncture the exoskeleton of their prey and
          suck out the juices inside.

          Wekiu bugs are nearly one quarter of an inch long with
          long, thin legs. Young bugs are dark brown with red
          abdomens, while the adult bugs are a more uniform dark
          brown to black color. Like all other true bugs, the young
          have only small developing wing pads. The adults,
          however, never develop full wings. Having extremely
          reduced wings may be an advantage to an insect that sneaks
          its way through rocks and ash. Besides, flying at the summit
          of Mauna Kea can send a bug on a long trip.

          The bugs share their summit home with other arthropods,
          including spiders and caterpillars. Each has found its own
          way of dealing with the extreme cold found at this
          elevation. Wolf spiders hunker down under rocks that have
          been absorbing the sun's heat during the day. Moth
          caterpillars, like many other types of insects, have a sort of
          antifreeze in their bodies that prevents ice crystals from
          forming in their cells. The wekiu bug also can endure
          subfreezing temperatures with a natural antifreeze in its blood
          but also has a dark body to absorb warmth from the sun and
         simultaneously protect it from ultraviolet radiation.

          Until recently the wekiu bug was known only from the three
          cones at the summit of Mauna Kea. Construction of
          observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea raised concerns
          that the wekiu bug may be in jeopardy of losing its only
          known habitat. So the search began to find more bugs on
          Mauna Kea and the slopes of Mauna Loa. Individuals have
          now been observed on cinder cones nearly three miles from
          the Mauna Kea summit, while a previously unknown
          species was discovered on Mauna Loa.

          The Mauna Loa bug, Nysius aa, was first captured in 1985
          but not described as a different species until 1998. The life
          style of this bug appears to be very similar to that of its
          sister species, the wekiu bug, but subtle differences in its
          appearance make it clear that this is not the same species.
          Similar species have not been observed from Hualalai or
          Haleakala, but maybe they just haven't been found yet."