Ants have been farming for far longer than humans have existed. They discovered fungus farming around fifty or sixty million years ago in the wet rainforests of South America, and have continued tending their underground fungus gardens through countless years as the planet changed and changed, and changed again. Much more recently — just a few years ago — I wrote about the fungus-farming ants (called “attine ants”), trying to imagine how they might view human agriculture. Our imaginary attine author closed with the hope that studying humans might help the attines understand their own history, “such as how the transition from primitive to advanced agriculture occured in our own ancestors”, and now a study by a group of humans has shed light on that very question. Continue reading
Every word in the title is a lie. The creature I’d like to introduce isn’t a spider and it doesn’t have ten legs, but that was exactly what I thought when I got a good look at it, which wasn’t the first time I saw it. The first time I saw it, I thought it might have been a plant’s root or some kind of stolon. I had just jumped in for a swim on Saturday afternoon when I saw something brown at the bottom of the pool. It wasn’t moving, and it seemed to be about the size of my thumb. Grabbing the sieve, I dived down and fished it out, then called my partner over. “Can you have a better look at this and see what it is? I think it’s some kind of root, but I can’t really see it properly.” My long, wet hair was obscuring my vision and I was trying to keep the sieve above water.
“It’s a spider,” she said. “A gigantic spider!” (It was gigantic — around 8-9cm across!) I’m lucky enough to be married to someone with a fascination for creepy-crawlies; with a smile, she deposited the dead spider in a jar for later examination and then joined me in the pool. Continue reading
The newly discovered Bone-house wasp, Deuteragenia ossarium, builds a unique nest for its young. Unlike species which excavate their own nests, D. ossarium belongs to a group of nest-building wasps which use existing cavities, such as abandoned galleries of wood-boring beetles, as nest sites. Female wasps abandon their nests after sealing their brood within; they don’t care for their young or offer any protection beyond what the nest provides. The nest consists of a few brood-containing cells and an outer ‘vestibular’ cell — an entryway — which probably serves as a defensive barrier. The vestibule is usually empty, but researchers surveying nests in southeast China found a surprise in some of the entry halls — they were full of ant corpses. The team reared the brood from the nests and discovered a new wasp species, which they named after the striking ossuaries found in some parts of the world.
Since plants generally can’t move around, they have to rely on other strategies to cope with animals eager to turn them into a meal. Chemical weapons are a significant part of plants’ defensive arsenal. For example, thousands of plant species produce precursors of the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide; when an animal eats the plant, the precursors get converted into cyanide, which kills the offending animal. Continue reading
Flies are incredibly agile on the wing, pulling off twists and turns that outstrip anything we’ve accomplished. Their flight is powered by two pairs of large muscles in their thorax which contract rhythmically to make their wings beat anywhere between 100 and 1000 times per second. Power is transferfed from these muscles to the wings by a hinge made of an intricate collection of steering muscles. Although the steering muscles make up less than 3% of the flight muscle mass, they very effectively direct the force produced by the larger muscles, thus guiding the fly’s aerial acrobatics. In a paper appearing in PLoS Biology, a team of scientists from the UK and Switzerland used a particle accelerator to record high-speed X-ray images of blowflies (Calliphora vicina) in flight, producing a 3-D video of the inside of the fly showing the muscles moving as it manuevered. Continue reading
I’ve written about mind-controlling parasites and I’ve also written about ants a couple of times, but for some reason I still haven’t written about the famous “zombie ants“. These fascinating, macabre little wonders are ants that have been infected by a fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) which manipulates their behaviour. The fungus makes the ant climb up at plant stalk and bite into the underside of a leaf, clinging to it in a death grip. The fungus then kills the ant, consuming its innards before sending a reproductive stalk out through the corpse’s head.
I recently found out about an exciting research project looking into how the fungus manages its manipulation of the ant. Charissa de Bekker, a post-doc at Penn State University, is using Microryza to crowdfund her project, which will investigate what genes are active in the fungus’ manipulation of the ant. Since I think it’s an awesome project, I invited her to answer a few questions about herself and her work. Read on to find out what she has to say, and if you think the project sounds interesting or useful, consider backing it on Microryza — she’s got 11 days left to reach her goal! Continue reading