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
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
I’m offline this week as I’ve retreated to one of my favourite places in the world for a holiday. I was too busy to prepare a post before leaving, but fortunately it’s about time for another Found while foraging. Hopefully this post will be automatically published on Wednesday while I’m happily reading in front of a fire in a lovely cottage unburdened by the trappings of modernity — power, plumbing, and internet. I’ve never pre-scheduled a post for publication before, so I hope it works. I won’t link to many Scitable posts this time, but do pop over and have a look anyway; there’s some great stuff on there. As always, though, feel free to add more links in the comments!