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Scientists Baffled by Mysterious, Tiny Structures in Amazon: PHOTOS


There's something fun about scientists being completely stumped--it's a little reminder that, despite everything we humans have figured out about our world, the Earth is far more diverse and mysterious than we can imagine.  One such enigma has cropped up this week in South America, as WIRED explains:

Something in the Peruvian Amazon is making weird, intricate structures that resemble white picket fences surrounding an Isengard-like spire.

No one has any idea who the mysterious craftsbug (fungus? spider?) is, or what the structure is even used for, excepting the fence part, which almost makes sense. Nobody, not even the scientists. We asked.

Troy Alexander, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, spotted the first of these structures on June 7. The little, seemingly woven fence was parked on the underside of a blue tarp near the Tambopata Research Center, in southeastern Peru. He later spotted three more of the bizarre enclosures on tree trunks in the jungle.

Photos of the mysterious structures were first posted to Reddit's "What's this bug?" section 10 days ago, and biologist Phil Torres, who works in the Tambopata area, tweeted a link to the photos last week.

WIRED reached out to a smattering of scientists to ask for hypotheses about the structures' origins and got back...well, not many answers:

“I have no idea what made it, or even what it is,” said William Eberhard, an entomologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

“I’ve seen the photo, but have no idea what animal might be responsible,” echoed Norm Platnick, curator emeritus of spiders at the American Museum of Natural History.

“I don’t know what it is,” said arachnologist Linda Rayor, of Cornell University. “My guess is something like a lacewing, but I don’t really know.”

Towleroad scientists--anyone have a theory as to what these tiny towers might be?

Check out some more photos of the formations, AFTER THE JUMP...

(photos courtesy of Troy S. Alexander and the Tambopata Research Center)



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  1. Real life Amazonian faeries. Duh.

    Posted by: Cole | Sep 6, 2013 6:09:37 PM

  2. :3 no idea ! but looks awesome!

    Posted by: Frank | Sep 6, 2013 6:10:53 PM

  3. Early Stonehenge

    Posted by: steve talbert | Sep 6, 2013 6:13:13 PM

  4. Who says aliens have to land a big honkin' spaceship on the White House lawn?

    Posted by: RJP | Sep 6, 2013 6:23:08 PM

  5. It looks like an arachnid egg case with a trap for food for the emerging young.

    Posted by: Gordon | Sep 6, 2013 6:35:42 PM

  6. Maybe bionics also works the other way around: insects mimic humans or human settlements.

    Posted by: Zenobi | Sep 6, 2013 6:40:16 PM

  7. would say a fungus except the tarp one messes up that theory

    Posted by: Moz's | Sep 6, 2013 6:47:32 PM

  8. I'm assuming it's protection for the young in an egg sack.

    Posted by: anon | Sep 6, 2013 6:48:38 PM

  9. 'The Donald' downsizing...

    Posted by: mike/ | Sep 6, 2013 6:48:48 PM

  10. Poke it and find out.

    Posted by: zen | Sep 6, 2013 6:56:54 PM

  11. I agree with Gordon but with one change. The spire and fence like structures are to keep other foraging predatory insects out rather than to capture food...

    Posted by: Robert M. | Sep 6, 2013 7:04:01 PM

  12. Gay Aussie entomologist. I reckon one of 3 primary suspects-
    1. Lepidoptera- some moth larvae do build supports for their retreats.
    2. Neuroptera- Some sort of lacewing or Mantispid.
    3. An abandoned or incomplete spider egg case.
    Observation of the area is the only way to find out. Maybe someone
    Should stop logging for a while?!

    Posted by: Wirrrn | Sep 6, 2013 7:18:09 PM

  13. "Scientists baffled" is the stupidest phrase in the English language. Just because you don't know something doesn't mean you're "baffled."

    Posted by: AdamK | Sep 6, 2013 7:42:38 PM

  14. Maybe they should have a look at the "tiny structures" in some people's pants.

    Posted by: Jack | Sep 6, 2013 8:05:17 PM

  15. "Maybe they should have a look at the "tiny structures" in some people's pants."

    Trollin' for a date again, Jack?
    There's gotta be someone out there who is into microphallophelia. Just hold out hope.

    Posted by: RJP | Sep 6, 2013 8:29:26 PM

  16. Just a guess, but if I were an Amazonian spider, I might not want ants stealing my prey. Perhaps this is some sort of trap for a certain kind of spider food, with a fence around it to keep ants or some other crawling insect out.

    Either that or this is the world's first species of spiders who have invented ranching and their tiny bug-cattle are all out grazing?

    Posted by: JDB | Sep 6, 2013 8:47:40 PM

  17. Um can't they just PCR the DNA and determine the type of organism responsible?

    Posted by: Ulu | Sep 6, 2013 9:20:59 PM

  18. They're herrrre...

    Posted by: MARTIN | Sep 6, 2013 9:23:54 PM

  19. Looks like a sporing body of a fungus. Sometimes they can make really intricate structures.

    Posted by: jersey | Sep 6, 2013 9:24:25 PM

  20. It's those damn hyper-religious lacewings again, the ones in the bottle cap cult.

    Posted by: E. Dallas | Sep 6, 2013 9:43:09 PM

  21. Land fish.

    Posted by: Kev C | Sep 6, 2013 9:52:31 PM

  22. Looks like the work of a spider to me, one with a set of modified spinnerets. I believe the central sac is an egg sac and the fence serves a dual purpose, keep out predators and capture prey for hatchlings.

    Posted by: Joesph Foster | Sep 6, 2013 9:53:46 PM

  23. If it's a lacewing, there will be millions of microscopic spheres all over the construction, they look something like pollen, but are produced by the lacewing.

    Posted by: Joesph Foster | Sep 6, 2013 9:55:37 PM

  24. PROMETHEUS 2 still.

    Posted by: tim | Sep 6, 2013 10:03:24 PM

  25. It's left over sperm after the aborigines jacked off.

    Posted by: Mike | Sep 6, 2013 10:23:45 PM

  26. 1 2 3 »

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