Home, leafy home
Most animals depend directly or indirectly on leaves that serve as continuous suppliers of life-supporting oxygen, and also as kitchens where food is prepared for the plant. But these amazing kitchens also double up as homes for a host of creatures.
“Tooweet–toowee” goes the Tailor Bird while she stitches together leaves to make her eco-friendly nest. Perhaps she was the very first tailor on earth, using her beak as a needle and twisting cobwebs into fine threads. She takes the precaution of ensuring that the upper surface of the leaves is on the outside of the nest as it makes a safe camouflage for her chicks from the eyes of predators.
Weaver ants have earned the notorious reputation of using child labour to stitch the margins of leaves together to construct their communal homes. Several adult ants hold the leaves in position while one of the workers holds a young larva in her mouth and runs it along the leaf margins, taking advantage of the young one’s ability to secrete silk. The adult workers are bereft of silk glands.
The skilful manner by which weevils make cuts in leaves and then create neat, compact rolls out of portions of the leaf lamina simply flummoxes us. It is a kind of tricky origami; they do not use any silk or glue. The young larvae shelter inside, ‘as snug as a bug in a rug’, until they are old enough to look after themselves.
You may have often noticed leaves of the Rose plant or the Laburnum tree having perfectly semi-circular portions cut out. This is the doing of the Leafcutter bees. They do this by rooting their rear ends in one spot and moving their heads in an arc, their mandibles serving as scissors. Tirelessly, they make endless trips from the plant to the nest site and back, to transport the leaf pieces. Using them like bricks they then build, bit by bit, cigar-shaped nests that line the inside of any tunnel-shaped openings. It is here that their young ones hatch and grow up.
Some insects get both lodging and boarding by living inside the tissues of the leaf lamina and feeding upon the same too. Leaf-mining bugs and caterpillars of the Red Pierrot Butterfly are two such kinds of tenants. The former is very tiny and favour leaves of the Karanj tree (Pongamia pinnata) or Murud Sheng (Helicteres isora) while the latter prefer to reside in the leaves of Panphuti (Bryophyllum pinnatum).
Some butterflies like the Red Admiral and Golden Angle spend part of their lives—the caterpillar and chrysalis stages —in cells which the young caterpillar makes by turning over a small part of the leaf of its host plant from along the edge and using its own silk as glue. The cell is almost invisible as the turned over edge lies flat against the rest of the leaf. However, the caterpillars keep changing their addresses as time and again they shift into new cells that they construct from scratch. This is because the caterpillar eats away greedily on the very part of the leaf that shelters it. Moreover, each time the caterpillar shifts residence, it ensures the new one is larger than the previous one to accommodate its increasing size.
The small webs of spiders often seen on leaf surfaces are different from the orbs which serve as prey traps. They are more like white mats – a kind of nursery sheltering the baby spiders. If you happen to lift one end of this mat carefully, you will see the fifty odd baby spiders taking shelter within.
There are many more different creatures that make their homes in leaves; the list is endless. So the next time you glance at a canopy of leaves, just think of all the myriads of creatures that may have built their rent-free homes inside. Man has yet to invent something as wondrous as leaves that provide not only oxygen and food but also shelter.
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