This green treehopper resembles a leaf

Photo: Mike Keeling/Flickr

Funky bugs

The treehopper family Membracidae is a wild and wacky bunch, the lesser known cousins of the less-than-appealing cicada. The slow process of evolution has led this family of bugs to split off into more than 3,000 separate species, each blending in with its own environment.

Once you can determine what's a leaf and what's a bug, a closer look at treehoppers shows that they are a strange group. The most widely varying part of a treehopper is its pronotum (the area between the insect's head and its body), which grows upward and outward in myriad odd shapes.

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A tiny treehopper sits atop a man's thumb

Photo: Andreas Kay/Flickr

Treehoppers and thornbugs are common throughout the world, existing in pretty much every climate except the frigid Arctic. In some areas, they are more plentiful, but in the United States, they haven't yet gained pest status. For now, we'll take the liberty of giving them "cute" status. Usually no bigger than about a half an inch, these tiny bugs have been extensively photographed using macro lenses, making this exercise much more informative.

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This treehopper looks like it has thorns

Photo: Yogendra Joshi/Flickr

An imposing fellow, this treehopper has employed the age-old trick of mimicry. Spiky thorns and stark coloration warn predators that this bug would make for a rather nasty snack. And speaking of snacking — treehoppers like to feast on the nutritious liquid contents of plant stems. Each species of treehopper has its own preferred tree. In the United States, you'll find these little guys most often on oak trees.

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 A treehopper nymph looks different than adults

Photo: Andreas Kay/Flickr

If you thought the previous thorn-mimicking treehopper looked threatening, take a look at the treehopper nymph above! Who wouldn't hesitate to pick this one up? Though they don't seem like they need it, young treehoppers receive a lot of careful attention from their mothers. First the mother lays its eggs inside a stem, then it prepares the rest of the stem by poking little holes with its beak so the nymphs have easy access to grub. Then the mother treehopper will keep close watch to ensure none of her young wander off into the unknown. Some species of treehoppers are more communal, and many adult treehoppers pitch in to take care of their collective young.

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Portuguese helmet treehopper

Photo: Geoff Gallice/Flickr

While female treehoppers do their best to hide, male treehoppers are the ones you'll see flitting from branch to branch, leaf to leaf looking for a mate (like the Portuguese helmet treehopper above). Upon landing, the male treehopper sends a pulse through the plant to try to communicate to a female via a kind of Morse code. Rex Cocroft of Natural History Magazine describes the sound as "a rich, bubbling down-sweep of tone and percussion that courses through the plant." If she's interested, the female responds with her own good vibrations, allowing the male to track her down.

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Treehopper mimicking an ant

Photo: Andreas Kay/Flickr

Some treehoppers are truly showstoppers when it comes to mimicry. This ant-mimicking treehopper has grown some peculiar appendages. Ants and treehoppers work together to live in a mutually beneficial relationship. Treehoppers eat sap from the stems of plants and secrete a substance called honeydew. Ants like to eat the honeydew, keeping the treehoppers' homes clean. Ants ward off predators while treehoppers do their best to camouflage the group so they can live in peace.

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A treehopper with a funky head

Photo: Andreas Kay/Flickr

The species of treehopper shown above was found in Ecuador, in the tropics where species become more brightly colored. It vaguely resembles a tree frog with its bright green helmet and red accents.

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This treehopper has a thorny head

Photo: Andreas Kay/Flickr

The range of colors in these tropical treehoppers is astounding.

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A treehopper with an elaborate thorny head

Photo: Andreas Kay/Flickr

Whether its appearance is meant to scare off a predator or to attract a mate, there's no denying that the treehopper is one of the most impressive of all insects.

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Anna Norris is an associate editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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