Monthly Archives: September 2009

Beware Those Yellow Crazy Ants, Christmas Island White-Eye…

yellow crazy ant

An online report published in last week’s Biology Letters has revealed the damaging effect an invasion of ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes) is having on some of Christmas Island’s native bird and plant species. In this study, led by ecologist, Dennis O’Dowd of Monash University in Melbourne, experiments were carried out to see if the ants’ behaviour inhibited small forrest passerines such as the Christmas Island White-eye and the Island Thrush from eating the produce of the local fleshy-fruited plants.

By setting up equal numbers of model fruit displays and real fruits in areas both cleared of and occupied by the supercolonies of Anoplolepis gracilipes, commonly known as ‘yellow crazy ants’ on account of their erratic reaction when disturbed, the team was able to observe the instances of fruit-handling by the two species of birds in both kinds of environments. Using peck-marks on the 1151 model fruits that were handled by the birds, they found that both the white-eye and the thrush were less likely to approach the fruits in areas inhabited by the yellow crazy ants, with the handling rates up to 2.4 times lower in the ant-invaded areas than those which were ant-free.

As the consumption and handling of fruit is imperative to the reproduction of both the local plants and native birds, a reduction in fruit-handling due to the steadily expanding supercolonies of yellow crazy ants is a conservational concern, especially given that the numbers of Christmas Island red crabs have already been greatly affected by this ant invasion. As O’Dowd observed, the yellow crazy ants would often climb onto the birds, causing them to ruffle their feathers and stomp their feet in an attempt to shake them off, this behaviour proven to be far more deadly where the red crab is concerned, the ants known to swarm over the crabs, spray them with formic acid, and bite them to death.

Figure 1*

christmas island white-eye yellow crazy ants

So I can kind of see where the white-eyes and red crabs are coming from. It’s not like either of them are known for being particularly short-tempered creatures, so if they say the yellow crazy ants – or YELLOW KRAZEE ANTZ, as they prefer to be called – are insufferable, I’m willing to bet they are. Like, a Christmas Island White-eye will be quietly wafting through the forrest one day, feeling kinda hungry, before stumbling on a cluster of plump reddish berries. He’ll skip around them for a bit, sizing them up and being like, “Hey, berries, awesome.” But that brief moment will probably be ruined by a bunch of YELLOW KRAZEE ANTZ who will come marching over all like, “OH HAI! OMG you guys, I can’t believe we ate an entire pie for BREAKFAST!!!!!1!!!” and the Christmas Island White-eye will roll his eyes, all sarcastic, like, “Oh okay… CRAZY…! Now listen, ants. I’m pretty hungry, and I just found these berries, so would you… umm, hey excuse me, you’re kind of in my way, I was just going to peck there and erm…”

But the ants will all ignore him with their, “Aw shit, I think I just sent a NSFW gif to everyone in the ENTIRE COLONY, LOL!!!!!!1!”

“ROFLCOPTER!!!!!1!!”

“OMG I totally almost opened that in front of the QUEEN!!! LOLOLOL!!!!!1!!”

At which point the poor Christmas Island White-eye will crossly cut them off with a, “SHUT UP! Just shut up! No one cares! I just want to eat the… Jesus Christ, get the hell off me, you shits!! OFF! Okay fine. You know what? I’m done. You can have the berries. Have ALL the berries you want, I’m getting the fuck out.” And with that, he’ll shake the remaining YELLOW KRAZEE ANTZ out of his feathers and fly off, hungry and pissed.

Then the Christmas Island White-eye will run into a group of red crabs making their annual migration from the forrest to the shore, and one of them will call out to him like, “Hey, Mister White-eye! How’s the family?” And Christmas Island White-eye will tell him about how one of his chicks, Jessica, is hell-bent on leaving the nest before her wings are ready, and Red Crab will sigh good-naturedly and declare, “Fledglings,” at which Christmas Island white-eye will nod with a, “Bless ’em. So how’s the migration going?”

But before Red Crab even has a chance to respond, an army of YELLOW KRAZEE ANTZ will turn up and start crawling up on top of the both of them, all like, “Oh HAI guys! Guess what??!! We accidentally slept in this morning, so we’re doing an expedition… in our PYJAMAS!!!!!!1!!! LOL!” And Christmas Island White-eye will be like, “Well I know where this is going…”, and shake a handful of those tiny yellow menaces out of his feathers before getting the hell out of there. But Red Crab will hesitate nervously, and as a trail of YELLOW KRAZEE ANTZ parade across his claws, he’ll be like, “Umm look. I’m just trying to migrate to the shore over there with a few hundred of my relatives, and we’d really appreciate it if you’d just leave us alone, okay?”

But the YELLOW KRAZEE ANTZ are having none of it, being like, “Whatever man, we’re going to eat your insides!!”

“ROFLCOPTER!!!!!1!”

“Haha! ACID IN THE FACE!! AIM HIGHER, HIS EYES ARE ON STALKS!!!”

And having finally dismantled said crabby insides, this supercolony of arseholes will take all the pieces back to their nest for lunch, after which they’ll probably build something not unlike THIS.

Biology Letters report // Science News.org

* Figure 1 from original paper. (a) Artificial fruiting display with model fruits, (b) red model fruits (scale bar, 1 mm) handled by the thrush ((c) left fruit; credit: Kee Seng Foo) or white-eye ((d) right fruit; credit: Tony Patisser).

– bec

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It Pays To Be Nice To Your Tongue-Eating Isopod, Unfortunate Weaverfish.

fish tongue eat isopod

The rare Tongue-eating louse (Cymothoa exigua) has been found inside a weaverfish by fishermen off the coast of the Minquiers, a small group of islands under the jurisdiction of Jersey. Although called a louse, it is actually a 2cm-long parasitic isopod crustacean, and it survives by burrowing into a fish through its gills, attaching itself to the muscular base of the tongue, and sucking the blood from it until it eventually withers away to nothing. The isopod then behaves almost like a replacement tongue, causing no additional harm to the host fish as it feeds off the scraps of food that enter its mouth.

Now Weaverfish, this situation can go either way, depending on how well you treat your new, umm, guest, and if you want my opinion, you should probably try to make the most of things because that isopod isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. But, you know, it’s your isopod, and you’ve got to make up your own mind, so here’s where I can see it going.

If you do decide to be civil to your new isopod, making him feel welcome and almost like a friend, (as opposed to a horrifying parasitic nightmare who just devoured one of your very important organs) I’m sure he’d be more than happy to pay a little for his keep. Like, you know that cute lady weaverfish you like but are too shy to talk to, so you always end up having a conversation with whomever is sitting next to you at the time and, oh shit, it’s that dude who responds to everything you say with a, “Haha! Weaverfish, you’re great. I’m buying you a drink… JK! Haha! Seriously though, I’m too poor,” which in turn reduces you to guiltily tweeting about how mediocre the mysis shrimp tastes while the cute lady weaverfish regales everyone with her hilariously cringe-worthy stories about being brought up by two really sexually-liberated parents? Well, your isopod will probably think she’s kinda gross because he’s not that into girls, he’s more into very important organs, so you guys could totally do the old, “Oh here’s a neat idea – why don’t you tell me what to say to the boy/girl I like because you’re so eloquent and/or suave and I’m so stupid and/or shy and she/he will totally fall in love with me because they’ll think I’m eloquent and/or suave too?” shtick. And it’ll be so much easier than when most awkward lovers try it because, for obvious reasons, your isopod won’t have to submerge himself in a clump of seaweed nearby to hide from the cute lady weaverfish’s view. And being internal, you’re unlikely to have one of those disastrous, “Lady weaverfish, being with you is like….eternal parasite? Hey fuck you, Isopod, do it properly! Jerk. What? Oh. Umm… Being with you is like eternal paradi… Oh she’s gone. Shit,” moments.

And your isopod would also be a great asset for when you play trivia, because I bet you could easily fit a tiny set of encyclopedias in there with him (no, Weaverfish, there aren’t any waterproof smart phones yet, I’ve checked) and maybe even a very tiny atlas as well. You’d never get bored because everyone will think you’re a total genius and you won’t even have to do that thing where you screw your own team over by making up ridiculous answers and convincing them they’re the right ones, purely for the LOLs.*

On the other hand, you could be a right shit about the situation and every time you run into someone and they ask you how you are, you roll your eyes all like, “Well I would be fantastic if it wasn’t for this fucking isopod who sucked my tongue dry and permanently latched himself onto the stumpy remains with his razor-sharp claws.” Isopods have feelings too, Weaverfish. He’ll just get pissed off and upset and before you know it, you’ll be quietly swimming past a bunch of jellyfish, minding your own business, when all of a sudden your isopod calls out through your gills, “Hey, arseholes! Take your incomplete digestive systems elsewhere! Seriously, no one needs to see you take a shit out of your face. NO ONE!” After which one of them will come over, give you both the literal and figurative version of a shit-eating grin, and ask you if you know what it feels like to be gang-raped by a bunch of jellies. Quick as a flash your isopod will tell them you don’t, but you bet they fuck like a bunch of really bored women and you’ll barely feel a thing. Suddenly you’ll be surrounded by fifty-odd jellyfish wearing those shit-eating grins and, well, Weaverfish, we should probably leave it there.

Then later you’ll be swimming along, once again minding your own business, and you’ll pass a long-finned pilot whale who’s having a particularly bad day. Before you can even attempt to cover your gills up with your tiny fins, your isopod will be like, “Hey, long-finned pilot whale! You’re the worst dolphin ever. Just because you act like a whale and people call you a whale, doesn’t mean you’ve finally found your place in the world. What a fucking phony. Get out of my ocean!” And yes, your isopod does have a death wish because that long-finned pilot whale might act a lot like a whale, but he certainly doesn’t eat like one. Plankton and krill won’t save you this time, foolish Weaverfish!

So yes, this situation is really not ideal for anyone (except maybe your isopod, who gets free food, accomodation and transport), but there’s no excuse for being a whiny little bitch that no one wants to play with. Your isopod is not unlike a government-supported gypsy and it’s like I always say: Cross a gypsy, and you’ve got no one but yourself to blame when they throw babies at you while they steal your wallet.

* Plus they’ll probably stop inviting you if you do this too many times, Weaverfish. Believe me, I know.

BBC original report.

– bec

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Those Great Tits Want Your Braaaains, Pipistrelle Bats.

great tit

As delicately pretty as it might look, the great tit (Parus major) has been gaining quite the reputation for being involved in some seriously gruesome behaviour. Driven by hunger when their normal diet of insects has grown scarce, the great tit has been known to peck open the skulls of other passerines, or “perching birds,” and also tiny pipistrelle bats, the occurrence of the latter described in a paper published yesterday in Biology Letters. Péter Estók and Björn Siemers, bat ecologists of the Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology, Germany, studied a group of fifty-odd great tits over two winters, observing eighteen cases of pipistrelle hunting in a particular Hungarian cave in the Bükk Mountains.

Having seen a single great tit hunt a pipistrelle during the winter of 1996 in the same cave, Estók set out ten years later to determine whether or not this was just a one-off case. What they believe to have found, however, is an example of cultural transmission, as in a specific behaviour learned from other individuals and passed on through generations, as tits very rarely manage to live older than eight years old. Using the waking call of the pipistrelles as they come out of hibernation, these diminutive five-inch long predators track the groggy bats down, wrench them from their hidden roosts in the cave walls, and crack open their skulls to consume the brain within.

pipistrelle bat beheaded - great tit

As part of their research, Estók et al. played a recording of the waking bat calls to the group of great tits, finding that the noise attracted around 80% of the tits, who responded by drawing closer to the speakers. This result is contrary to what has been observed in previous studies of bat calls, which have successfully served as deterrents to potential predators, the chatter effectively driving them away. The researchers also provided the great tits with bits of bacon and seeds to determine whether the attacks on the pipistrelles were the result of the birds having developed a taste for bat brain, or of a paucity of more desirable food alternatives. They found the tits to prefer the food that was provided for them, observing only one case of pipistrelle predation at this time, suggesting that this perculiar behaviour is motivated by necessity.

Okay, yes, Pipistrelle Bat, this situation is all very gross and dire for you. No one is particularly happy about having to wake up from an enormous sleep, especially when there’s a chance they’re going to have their brain case pecked open when they do so. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You need to fight back, and playing to your strengths is probably the key to your success in this situation.

But what are your strengths, tiny Pipistrelle, I hear you ask? Well, being bats, preferring to hang out in dark caves as you do, tightly hugging yourselves with those membranous black wings as you grip inside leaky crevices with those dirty, possibly frayed claws of yours, you’ve been described on more than one occasion as being “creepy.” But don’t be offended, Pipistrelle Bat, I’d still invite you for tea at my house, so long as you promised to keep the chatter to a minimum, but more to the point – your creepiness could be your best asset in driving away those great tits. They’re hardly going to want to eat something they’re revolted by, right? So next time you stir from hibernation and start talking to the bat next to you, only to have a hungry great tit fly right over and give you the murderous side-eye (because being bird, that’s all they’ve got, tiny Pipistrelle), say something to the bat next to you like, “So when I was little, my mum used to nuzzle my neck before bed and it kind of gave me shivers, like, good shivers. You know the ones I mean, right? Is that weird?” and the great tit would be like, “Eww, you’re secretly attracted to your mum? Gross!” and fly away in disgust.

This tactic will serve you well, Pipistrelle Bat, I’m quite sure, however it’s only a matter of seasons before the great tits will talk amongst themselves and work out what you’re doing. They’ll be all, “Okay, this winter, there is no way we’re going to get psyched out any goddamn inch-long bats.” So you’ll have to up the ante a bit to combat their determination. You might want to call upon such classics as, “Oh hey, great tit. My, those are some nice legs. They’re so… skinny. Almost like the legs of a child. Oh, what I would do with them…” or, “You know, when I hear the Pipistrelle opposite me having their brain case pecked open and he’s shrieking and all like, “Oh for the love of God, just kill me!” I get kinda hungry. What’s that about?” and the great tit staring you down will be like, “Dude, I’d rather starve a thousand times over than consume your fucked up brain matter. I’m going home to my family so I can make love to my wife.

So as long as you’re okay with having the reputation of being some kind of deviant who’s attracted to their mum/minors/their friends dying a painful drawn-out death, you should be safe from the murderous beaks of those deceptively adorable yellow birds. Just remember, a good reputation is nothing if you’re without a head, tiny Pipistrelle Bat.

New Scientist // Not Exactly Rocket Science // Tetrapod Zoology

– bec

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A Plague’s A Crowd, Bosavi Woolly Rat.

bosavi woolly rat

A three-week expedition into the heart of an extinct volcano in Papua New Guinea has produced some truly remarkable results, with the discovery of a significant number of previously unknown species of frog, insects, fish, birds, and mammals. A team from the BBC Natural History Unit led by climber and naturalist, Steve Backshall, wildlife cameraman, Gordon Buchanan, and head scientist, Dr George McGavin, made the descent into the three-kilometre wide by one kilometre-deep crater of Mount Bosavi to find an estimated forty new species, including sixteen new species of frogs, at least twenty new species of insects, a new cuscus (since named the Bosavi Silky Cuscus), three new species of a fish, and what is thought to be a new species of bat.

“Highlights include a camouflaged gecko, a fanged frog and a fish called the Henamo Grunter, so named because it makes grunting noises from its swim bladder,” said Steve Greenwood, producer of the BBC series, Lost Land of the Volcano, for which the expedition was commissioned. Also of particular interest is the giant cat-sized rat, which was discovered with the help of an infrared camera. Yet to be given its scientific name, the Bosavi Woolly Rat reaches 82 centimetres from nose to tail, and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms, making it one of the largest rat species ever found.

bosavi hairy caterpillar

So you might be feeling a little bit bewildered right now, Bosavi Woolly Rat, having never seen people before and now all of a sudden you meet them and they adore you. But I think you should know that in terms of rats, you’re kind of an anomaly. People generally don’t like your kind, my giant rodent friend. You give them the creeps and they sort of assume you’re out to infect them with diseases, chew through their floorboards, or gnaw their babies’ faces off in their sleep. And I know that all sounds horrible to you and of course you’d never dream of doing anything of the sort because you are very much the gentleman, Bosavi Woolly Rat, but people can be odd sometimes.

All I’m saying is just don’t be surprised when you get the usual dinner party invitations that newly-discovered (or rediscovered) species get these days, and you ask if you can bring your partner and her five or six daughters along, the host will be somewhat reluctant. She’ll “umm and ahh…” a lot before responding delicately that she’d so love to have everyone along, but she only knows how to make enough pie for five guests, and even then she’d be improvising a little and she gets very anxious when she deviates from the recipe, you know? And before you can tell her that you’re sure your rat partner and her girls would be more than happy to bring a couple of extra pies, she’ll say something about call waiting and be like, “So glad you understand. Can’t wait to see you, just you, tonigh-   Oh that must be the caterers. Bye, dear.”

Then pretty soon it’s the weekend and you’ll just want to get your rat rave on with a bunch of your rat friends at some sick club because it’s been a hectic week with the whole ‘being discovered’ and ‘new species’ thing. You’ll invite the guys over to your place for drinks and shit and then you’ll all saunter up to the club a few hours later, the lot of you, but as soon as the door guy sees you he’ll be like, “Oh hell no!” And you’ll politely assure him, “We’re not going to cause any trouble, sir. But it’s Friday night and we just want to unwind.” But he’ll be impervious to your woolly charm and be all, “Well you’re going to need at least two ladies for every one of you before I’ll even consider letting your mangy arses pay a lot of money to come in here.” And being the reasonable rat you are, Bosavi Woolly Rat, you’ll turn to the guys and be like, “Yeah that’s cool, we can find some ladies. We’ll be back soon!”

“HUMAN ladies.”

“Oh.” And knowing full well the task required of you would be near impossible to achieve, you’ll slink back home, defeated and disappointed, having been unable to acquire any kind of rave to call your own.

You’ll try to make reservations at restaurants, Bosavi Woolly Rat, but when you turn up they’ll tell you they made a mistake and already gave your table away. A well-dressed lady in the corner wearing pearls will likely scream and scramble up onto the table. You’ll all go to the beach and everyone else will edge their umbrellas away and then throw your towels into the ocean when you go for a swim. You’ll go to the movies to see a film that’s been out for months already but the ticket girl will tell you it’s all sold out and when you sigh dejectedly as an enormous rat group she’ll tell you it wasn’t any good anyway. And neither are any of the other films they’re currently showing.

Yeah, it’s going to be tough for you and your rodent friends, Bosavi Woolly Rat, out in the real world. But just remember, as unpopular as a bunch of rats might be to most people, a bunch of camouflaged jungle spiders will always be far more unpopular. No one’s going to consider inviting even one of them over for dinner at their house, so that’s something, right?

– bec

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Umm Yale? Belemnotheutis Antiquus Called: He Wants His Sepia Back.

belemnite

Recently, a team led by British Geological Survey palaeontologist, Dr Phil Wilby, uncovered a 155 million year old squid-like creature with a full and perfectly preserved ink sac. Found near the small village of Christian Malford, Wilshire, this slim-line cephalopod known as Belemnotheutis antiquus is a perfect example of a process of fossilization known as the Medusa effect. “In normal circumstances, the decomposition process means only the hard parts of animal are preserved, such as the bones, shell and teeth. The odds of this find are easily a billion to one and probably much greater,” Wilby told the press. “We call it the Medusa effect: specimens turn to stone within a matter of days, before the soft parts can be eaten away.”

Recalling an experiment performed in 1826 when William Buckland sent Sir Francis Chantrey a sample of preserved sepia from a fossilized cuttlefish with which he was successfully able to draw a picture, Wilby’s team produced a portrait of the Belemnite, having returned the ink to liquid form by mixing it with an ammonia solution. The remaining ink has been sent to Yale University for further analysis.

squid ink

Now I know you must have a problem with this, Belemnotheutis antiquus. First they take away your ink sac, cruelly using the sepia within to render a grisly likeness of your handsome dart-shaped self, which is kind of the equivalent of extracting a part of your brain and making you eat it (kind of…), and then they send the rest of it to some laboratory where they’ll do all kinds of untold experiments on it. You might never get it back, Belemnotheutis antiquus, and that’s your ink sac.

My advice, disgruntled cephalopod? Steal that shit back, of course, and enlist the help of Buckland’s equally disgruntled cuttlefish, because I’m sure he feels he’s got a score to settle (even if the chances of him getting his own sepia back are quite slim given the amount of time that’s already passed since its removal). All you’ll need to do is give Yale a call and schedule an interview with some hot young lab technician. Show up at her lab with Buckland’s cuttlefish in tow and get him to hide behind the door while you introduce yourself and try to get the hot young lab technician to like you. You won’t have to do much, Belemnotheutis antiquus, because as is, you’re kind of a palaeontological wonder, and thus quite a catch (*cough*).

Be sure to make like you’re interested too, Belemnotheutis antiquus, but don’t do that thing where you smile coyly while glancing down at the ends of your tentacles. That’s what girls do. Be all, “Hey there… lab lady. You look pretty swell in your, umm, lab coat…” and she’ll giggle and tell you her name is Daphne. At this point you’ll probably need to sneak Buckland’s cuttlefish into the lab, so create a diversion by telling the hot young lab technician that you like her hair, how it’s all wavy and light-coloured or something (whatever you can come up with, Belemnotheutis antiquus, it doesn’t really matter). She’ll giggle again, look down at her shoes and unwittingly give Buckland’s cuttlefish the perfect opportunity to slip through the door undetected.

But of course, being the clumsy screw-up that he is, Buckland’s cuttlefish will accidentally knock a rack of test tubes off the bench as he scuttles towards your ink sac, which will be conveniently sitting out, (fortunately for the both of you, Belemnotheutis antiquus) as the hot young lab technician hopes to ask you a dozen or so questions about it, because that’s why you’re there. The test tubes will likely smash quite loudly on the laboratory floor, being made of glass as they normally are, but please don’t think you will need to expose yourself to the hot young lab technician in order to distract her from the commotion. I’m sure your cephalopod genitals are treasured and revered by all the lady cephalopods back home, but to human females, my good belemnite, probably not so much. Just laugh really enthusiastically at the last thing the hot young lab technician said, and if she gives you a puzzled look, just be like, “Oh, sorry, ‘Chromatoelectropherograms?’ I thought you said, ‘hydraulic ram!’ You’re funny.” She won’t get it, Belemnotheutis antiquus, and nor should she because it won’t make any sense, but that’s not going to matter because the point is she’s going to think that you think she’s really funny, and girls like that.

By this stage Buckland’s cuttlefish will have safely stowed your ink sac somewhere near his anus (don’t be embarrassed, Belemnotheutis antiquus, you can’t help the anatomical organisation of your molluscular class) and will be making for the open window. Ask the hot young lab technician where the bathroom is and tell her you’ll probably need to visit it immediately and for a good while as the plankton you ate earlier doesn’t seem to be sitting right. This will of course be a big fat lie, Belemnotheutis antiquus, being your very clever avenue of escape, but don’t worry, the hot young lab technician will get over it eventually.

You’ll lollop your way over to the tree you agreed to meet Buckland’s cuttlefish under to retrieve your ink sac in return for an appreciative pat on the mantle, but oh shit, disgruntled cephalopod, that sneaky fuck will never show. You’ll be waiting there for hours for Buckland’s cuttlefish like some kind of idiot while he’ll be long-gone, painting the town inky with his ill-gotten appendage. I’d love to say that none of us could see this coming, Belemnotheutis antiquus, but, well…

Times Online // JS Blog

– bec

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