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
Here’s a taste of what I’ve been writing on Beacon so far. It’s been enormously fun so far, and the focus is a bit different from what I post on here. I’ve got lots of other great story ideas coming up for Beacon; I’m looking forward to researching them and sharing what I find with my subscribers. For now, here are a few excerpts from my first few stories to entice those of you who might be on the fence:
Fit for a Queen
In this short creative nonfiction piece, a young queen sets off into the dangerous world alone. Burdened with her people’s future, she has to persevere in the hope that help will arrive in time.
The young queen had to find shelter soon. Everything depended on that. Stumbling, she scrambled over the rough ground as she looked for a place to hide — a crevice or even just a protective overhang. She spotted a fissure in the rocks ahead and made for it, a crack just wide enough for her to squeeze through. Safe at last, she slowed down, conserving her energy for the task ahead. Continue reading…
Through Alien Eyes
Mantis shrimp, famous for their lightning-quick punch, also have the most advanced eyes we know about and a fundamentally different approach to vision. Get a glimpse of how they see the world.
If we were designed in God’s image, it’s hard to imagine what model inspired the mantis shrimp, but it must have been pretty impressive. Heavily armoured and formidably armed, these marine crustaceans kill their prey — molluscs, crustaceans, and small fish — with a strike that accelerates as fast as a .22 calibre bullet. They look out at the world with a pair of eyes mounted on stalks which they can move independently, tracking an object with one eye while scanning their surroundings with the other. One researcher described the effect as “most uncrustacean-like, suggesting an almost ‘primate-like’ awareness of their surroundings.” Continue reading…
A Grander View
In a world that’s brimming over with life, we often think of ourselves as somehow special. Join me on a journey of exploration through the lives and evolution of the other creatures on Earth. Along the way, we’ll discover that the living world is infused with a richness of marvels, of which we are just a small part.
It all started with agriculture. Or maybe fire. Or was it the first time we used language? The truth is that I don’t know when it started and I won’t pretend to, but at some point we invented the conceit of human exceptionalism and that myth has grown ever since. It’s infiltrated our language and permeates our thoughts, shaping how we see the world. Seduced by our ingenuity, we imagine ourselves as apart from the rest of the world, elevated above it or at least dominant within it. 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
It’s time for another Found while foraging! I’m going to do things slightly differently this time. Instead of just sharing various tidbits I’ve come across online since last time, I’m going to focus on science-related stuff to celebrate the recent launch of my new blog, Accumulating Glitches, as part of Nature’s Scitable network. I’d also like to take the opportunity to also point you towards some of my favourite posts from the other new blogs in the relaunched network. I hope you’ll find them enlightening and entertaining! As always, though, feel free to add more links in the comments!
An international team of researchers studying fire ants have discovered the first “social chromosome”. While this is obviously exciting to those of us who are fascinated by the advanced social organization of ants, the discovery also has broader implications. The mechanism the researchers uncovered is similar to how sex is determined in many animals, creating the tantalizing possibility that it might be an example of a more general mechanism for evolving distinctly different complex behaviours. Continue reading
Several years ago, scientists published an excellent study about how desert ants find their way home after foraging. The story got a lot of media attention; unfortunately, much of the coverage described the ants “counting steps”, which isn’t what the researchers reported and feeds into existing myths rather than broadening our scope. To explain what I think is wrong with that approach, I’m going to tell you a story about ants on stilts, body swapping and how we perceive space. Continue reading