Category Archives: Science

Wandering Ponies #5

For this edition of WP, I’ll attempt to take you on a roller coaster of emotions, most of which will hopefully be pleasant, and one of which, hopefully not. Unless of course you, I don’t know, find birds scary, squids lame, oil fantastic, and humour not so funny, then I’ve completely misrepresented this entire thing. Maybe you don’t even have emotions. Yeah, exactly. But regardless, I suggest you climb aboard. Unless you’re pregnant. In which case you’re going to have to sit this one out. Sorry, lady, rules are rules.

First up is photographer, Andrew Zuckerman’s, new book – Bird, and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. Described by Erin Estell, a bird trainer who worked on the project, as, “like Vogue for birds,” it features 200 stunning photographs of 75 species, including a baby-faced African pygmy falcon, the most villainous-looking ferruginous hawk you’ll ever see, and my absolute favourite, the secretary bird. You can see most of the photo’s on his website here (I’d post some here if I wasn’t terrified to my very soul by that copyright warning).

And speaking of birds, New Scientist’s wonderfully quirky weekly column about bizarre/extraordinary animals, Zoologger, has a great article on the amazing tool manipulation of rare Egyptian vultures. But before you go all, “Birds and tools = old news, GOD,” this particular story includes coprophagy (not quite as bad as matriphagy, but almost), a fascinating story behind the publication of the original research paper, and one of the best scientific journal titles around. If that doesn’t pique your interest, you can leave (but I’m keeping your shoes):

Zoologger: Vultures use twigs to gather wool for nests.

If you’ve ever simultaneously wanted to marry someone while wishing you could be that same person, you’ll understand how I feel about the Oatmeal Guy. Obviously we haven’t got the technology to facilitate the latter, so I’ll just have to keep working on the former. Regrettable fangirl confessions aside, he really does capture the absolute shit of a hand the male angler fish is dealt in his latest comic here. And when I say ‘absolute shit of a hand,’ I mean everyone else got regular playing cards, while he ended up with a handful of angry grizzly bears who just got told he stole their cubs and called them bad parents:

How the Male Angler Fish Gets Completely Screwed.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute never ceases to amaze with its constant output of incredible footage showing everything from otters holding hands to an inside-out vampire squid. Their latest video shows even more deep-sea squids zipping around and ejecting spawn and whatever else squids do for fun:

And finally,’s The Big Picture section has a few oil spill photo collections that are devastating to look at, but so, so important:

The Big Picture – Caught in the Oil // Scenes from the Gulf of Mexico // Oil in the Gulf – Two Months Later

But because I don’t want to leave you sadfaced, here’s a cat swimming in beanbag filling:


– bec



Filed under Animals, Archosaurs, Art, Potential Husbands, Science, Sea Creatures, Video

Trust Me When I Say You’re Going to Need a Blow Torch and Some Rope, Amaurobius ferox Spiderlings.

black-lace weaver spider

In a discovery both sinister and intriguing, a biologist in South Korea has found that life as a juvenile Black-lace weaver spider (Amaurobius ferox) is far from easy. As part of a group known as subsocial spiders, an A. ferox individual will hatch with some 60-130 siblings and remain on a communal web with its mother, living off the eggs she lays for it until it is old enough for a more solitary lifestyle. But things aren’t as simple as they sound, because before they can venture off on their own, these spiderlings must first eat their devoted mother alive. A week or so after hatching, the mother will encourage her brood to devour her body, a strategy which has been found to produce a higher number of surviving offspring, as opposed to abandoning them early to lay a second clutch.

But this is not the only cooperative behaviour displayed by A. ferox juveniles. In the first study examining the synchronisation movements in non-social or subsocial spiders, Dr. Kil Won Kim of the University of Incheon of the Republic of Korea has found that in response to certain stimuli, the orphaned spiderlings will group together and contract their bodies in unison in order to make their web pulse. This behaviour, which would emerge just one day post-matriphagy, is typically triggered by the approach of intruding insects, mites or worms, an individual spiderling sensing this potential threat, causing it to contract in response. Other spiderlings in the huddle then follow suit, contracting and relaxing their bodies to create a pull-and-release effect on the web. The A. ferox juveniles continue to use this apparent defense mechanism for seven to nine days, by which time they appear to grow out of it, focussing their collective efforts on hunting prey up to twenty times their size instead. Dr. Kim notes, “contraction seems to occur only during the period when the other is not present any more but the young are not yet capable of capturing prey.”

You’ll have to visit the BBC report to see clips of the A. ferox matriphagy and web-pulsing, but here are some Yellow sac spiderlings doing the former:

So alright, spiders. I was willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that you enjoy decorating your webs with rotting insect corpses because you like having freeloaders come and squat in your home. I just figured you were lonely and/or needed someone to verse you in Sonic Racing or something. And I don’t really have a problem with your lady jumping spiders beating each other to death at the drop of a hat, because let’s face it – girls will be girls, amirite? But this is just taking it too far, even by your atrociously low standards.

I mean, how does it work exactly? You’re all sitting around the dinner table like, “Hey Mum, look how many eggs I can fit in my mouth,” and “Do you think Justin Bieber like spiders? I bet he does. He seems nice. Do you think he’s nice? I wonder what he’s having for dinner. I bet it tastes better than these eggs,” when suddenly your mum’s like, “So… who wants part of my abdomen for dessert?”

And you’ll be all, “Wtf, Mum!”

And she’ll be like, “Watch your language.”

And then one of you will be like, “But Mum…” and, “Does this mean I’m going to have to catch the bus to school now?”

And she’ll be all, “Gregory, don’t start. Now excuse yourself from the table and come over here and eat your mother.”

So you’ll reluctantly slink off your chairs and edge towards her, telling each other that you’ll probably be grounded either way, but she’s much less likely to enforce it if you eat her first, and pretty soon she’ll be engulfed. Someone will point out rather sheepishly that it actually doesn’t taste that bad, and before you know it, you’ll be collectively digesting your mum in front of Wizards of Waverly Place.

But then what? What’s a family of inexperienced orphans going to do with no food and no protection from strangers who wouldn’t mind devouring and digesting you in front of the television? I’m sorry to break the news, spiders, but huddling together on your web, contracting nervously in unison, muttering, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, we’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die,” isn’t going to solve your problems once the insects and worms figure out what’s really going on.

Guys, you need a more sophisticated plan. And that’s where I come in. But first you’ll need:

* A precocious attitude
* An empty house, preferably in the initial stages of being renovated
* Paint tins
* Rope
* Bricks
* A blow torch
* Staple guns
* Live electrical wires lying in a pool of- –

What? Too complicated? Oh for Christ’s sake, spiders, I was only trying to help. GOD.

Original paper published by Insects Sociaux // Picture from Avec La Vie.


Related posts: Assassin Bug, What Do You Mean You’ve Never Seen The Jackal?

Way to be a Vegetarian for all the Wrong Reasons, Bagheera Kiplingi

– bec


Filed under Insects, Science, Video

Seahorse Would Like You To Keep Your Eggs To Yourself, Thanks, Cuttlefish.

A European cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) has been filmed laying its eggs onto an unwitting seahorse off the coast of Spain, presumably confusing its tail for a piece of seaweed. Not only is this the first time such a spectacle has been caught on film, the researchers believe it’s the first time a cuttlefish laying eggs in the wild has been filmed at all.

The curious behaviour was filmed by underwater cameraman and photographer, Manuel Enrique Garcia Blanco, who is assisting Ms. Fiona Read from the Marine Research Institute in Vigo, Galicia, investigate the sustainability of fisheries in the northwest Iberian Peninsula. With its 1,200 kilometer coastline, Galicia is known for its series of ports, harbours and coastal fishing villages, its centuries-old fishing tradition rendering it one of the main producers of mussels in the world.

Also targeted by Galician fisherman are the European cuttlefish, which led to Mr Blanco diving off the island of Toralla in the Ria de Vigo to film the cuttlefish as they bred and spawned. Over two hours he observed a cuttlefish lay fifteen of its grape-sized black eggs, attaching some, in typical fashion, to lengths of seagrass, and a couple to a passing seahorse.

“From the egg-laying behaviour, it is almost certain the cuttlefish put the eggs on when the seahorse was sitting in the seagrass,” Ms. Read told the BBC. “The eggs were really tight round the seahorse’s tail and it was thought to effect the survival of the seahorse. So the seahorse was captured and the eggs were cut from its tail. The seahorse is expected to survive but the eggs were damaged during the dissection.”

Oh Cuttlefish. I thought it would kind of go without saying that you can’t just lay your eggs wherever you want. People have their own shit going on, they don’t need to deal with yours as well. And I’m not telling you this just to be an arsehole, I’m telling you this because people are already talking about it at the office. Like, remember that time you went to the kitchen and that douchebag from accounts, who always takes forever at the coffee machine because he wanders off halfway through and you don’t want to move his cup because you’re kind of weird like that so you have to wait for like five minutes for him to come back before you can have your turn, was there? And he’s all, “Hey look. It’s raining.”

And you’re like, “Yeah. Hey can you hold these?”

“What? For how long? Hey!

But you were already back at your desk, pretending to be on an important call or something, and that douchebag from accounts had to carry your eggs around for like three weeks?

Yeah, not funny, Cuttlefish, because you know what will happen? You’ll be sitting in some staff meeting one afternoon and your boss will be like, “Okay so we’ll have IT look into that maturity reports error tomorrow, John. Anyone else have an issue they want to bring up? No? Right, get out of here. Wait, not you, Cuttlefish, a word…”

And you’ll be all, “Me?”

And he’ll be like, “Yeah.”

And he’ll get up and close the door, which means it’s totally serious, and just as you’re trying to add up how much annual leave you’ve accumulated and how many weeks’ rent it will cover while you’re unemployed, he’s like, “So, Cuttlefish. You want a Mentos? I’ve got so many here. They keep giving me fuckloads of the things and I don’t even like them. No? Okay listen. Workwise, we’ve got no problems with you. I hear you landed the McAlister account last week. Right on. High five. But there have been some complaints from the other staff about you, erm, laying your eggs on them and then running off, and so on.”

“Oh my god, it was that douchebag from accounts, wasn’t it?”

“I can’t say. It’s confidential.”

“Ugh, I knew it. What an arsehole.”

“Anyway, you just can’t do it.”

“Can I attach them to the side of my desk then?”

“Fine. But make sure you let the cleaners know. Now get out of here. And take some Mentos with you.”

You see, Cuttlefish, it’s about common courtesy. Like, what if everyone else started attaching stuff they didn’t want or couldn’t be bothered carrying around to everyone else? You’d be in another staff meeting, waiting for your boss to arrive, and Janet from HR will be complaining about how she can’t sit down because she’s got yesterday’s Telegraph stuck to the back of her knees, and Sandra from collections will be trying to pass Mitch from sales a Mentos but he can’t take it because his hands are filled up with the entire contents of someone else’s handbag, and Alan from legal will be like, “You think that’s embarrassing, try having that new MGMT record strapped to your leg. Awful.”

Meanwhile Markus from, well no one really knows because all he does is hang out in the kitchen all day talking about stocks, is all, “I don’t know what you guys are complaining about, it’s not that bad.”

“Easy for you to say, you’ve got half a dozen lamingtons stuck to your arm.”

“Are you calling me fat?!”

No one’s calling anyone fat,” Janet from HR will assert, as the overly-sensitive fat lady in accounts who just went on another diet and has been cleaning out her fridge, yes her fridge, all morning, sits back down.

And then your boss will finally crawl in, dragging his leg, which has a riled-up border collie puppy strapped to it because Alan from legal didn’t realise it would be too hyperactive for his three-year-old daughter to play with, behind him all, “Anyone care to explain why I wasn’t told about the lift being down this morning? JESUS. Who’s going to fix that?”

“Some dude called Gary does it. But Cuttlefish laid a bunch of eggs on him and they started hatching so he had to take the day off.”

“Shit. I won’t get taxed heaps on my accumulated leave, will I? Guys…?”

Original report by the BBC here // Cuttlefish picture from AquaViews.
– bec


Filed under Science, Sea Creatures

You Should Probably Just Move Oceans, Male Gulf Pipefish

It’s well-known that within seahorse circles, it’s the males who bear the responsibility of pregnancy, not the females. The same goes for their relatives, the pipefish, whose males are equipped with a specialised external brood pouch into which the females will deposit eggs during copulation. But a recent examination of  pipefish male pregnancy and mate selection by Kimberley Paczolt and Adam Jones from Texas A&M University has found that this process is nothing to coo over, Henry Gee, Senior Editor at Nature, describing it as “sinister.”

Observing the reproductive behaviour of 22 captive male Gulf pipefish (Syngnathus scovelli), a small-mouthed, pencil-shaped species with a relatively poor swimming technique, Paczolt and Jones discovered just how much control the males have over their prospective progeny. By pairing the males with either large or small females, they found that that the males wasted no time in mating with larger, more attractive females, but were significantly less eager when paired with smaller females. What they also found is that the eggs deposited by larger females had a much higher rate of survival to the point of birth, the males selectively aborting those from a less attractive partner by either retaining vital nutrients, or absorbing (ie cannibalising) the embryos.

By also looking at successive pregnancies in male pipefish, the team were able to make sense of their rather callous tendencies. Not only did broods from smaller females have a low survival rate to begin with, but if a male first mates with an attractive female and bears a large brood, he’s unlikely to want to invest more resources into a following pregnancy, particularly from a less attractive partner. Instead of nurturing these offspring, his specially evolved brood pouch allows him to retain or absorb the nutrients to ready himself for the possibility of meeting a more attractive mate. “When a male mates with a female that’s not necessarily all that ‘attractive,’ instead of investing a lot in those offspring, he’s recharging for the next pregnancy – at least this is what our results suggest,” Dr Jones reports.

That the male pipefish are actively trying to control the quality of their offspring during pregnancy is evidence of post-copulatory sexual selection, which follows the initial competition for mates by way of combat and elaborate courtship displays. Dr Jones explains, “When Darwin proposed the theory of sexual selection, he dealt entirely with pre-mating sexual selection… But after mating there are things that happen within the female’s reproductive tract or competition among sperm from different males that also results in sexual selection. So it turns out that post-mating sexual selection has hardly been studied at all in these sex role-reversed species.”

Well Gulf Pipefish Boys, you might think this is all pretty great, being able to pick and choose (and cannibalise) your own progeny with nary a qualm in the world. But the thing is, those ugly pipefish girls you mated with in the past, they’re not just going to disappear. The ocean might be big, but it’s not that big, and you know what they say – “Mate with one ugly pipefish that time you had nine vodkas, three gins and no dinner, and you’ll end up with six months of whiny text messages and a lifetime of really awkward encounters whenever you try and go back to that particular bar because they happen to serve $5 spirits till 1am.”

So you’ll decide to brave said bar one night, all, “Five tequila sunrises please. Yes, I’m serious. Oh. Hi…”

And that unattractive pipefish girl you once mated with, let’s call her… Martin, will be like, “OMG, I haven’t seen you in ages. How are the offspring?”


“You know, the offspring. Our offspring?”

“Oh. Umm. Hmm.”

“You ate them, didn’t you?”

“Well technically I absorbed… Shit. Five more tequila sunrises please.”

But it won’t end there, Gulf Pipefish Boys, with you simultaneously drinking and wearing a good deal of very cheap alcohol and orange juice, because everyone will know about that time you mated with Martin, especially her really short and ugly friends, and they’ll look at her and then at you and then back at her and figure they’ve got a shot.

So you’ll be at a completely different bar, trying to chat up some cute pipefish girl who really likes the Internet and stuff, like, “I aborted a brood twenty hoping to meet someone so… long. How many millimetres are you anyway? A hundred and twenty? Hundred and thirty? Wait right there, I’m going to get you a vat of gin.”

“And a Redbull.”

“And a Rebull. Right.”

But you’ll only get halfway to the bar before a bunch of Martin’s short and ugly friends swarm and engulf you, all, “Hey can I buy you a drink?”

“No thanks.”

“You want my number? I might be only ninety-five millimetres, but I sure know how to use them…”

“Ew. No thanks.”

“Hey can I buy you a drink?”

And meanwhile the cute pipefish girl who really likes the Internet and stuff will fully think you’re into ugly chicks or something and clear off without her vat of gin, or Redbull, and you’ll either have to go home alone, or pick one of the short and ugly pipefish girls to take with you, like, “Alright, fine. You. What’s your name? Brian? Yeah okay, whatever, come on.”

And you thought having a brood pouch would be a riot, Gulf Pipefish Boys.

More info from Not Exactly Rocket Science and Grrl Scientist // Original paper in Nature // Image from Reef Scavengers

Edit: I’m entering this post for the The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center’s Travel Award competition, which awards a $750 grant to two bloggers to attend ScienceOnline2011, a science communication conference held on January 13-15, 2011, in North Carolina. The best posts that highlight current or emerging evolutionary research appearing in peer-reviewed literature within the last five years win, so fingers crossed tightly for me please!!

– bec


Filed under Science, Sea Creatures, Video

Assassin Bug, What Do You Mean You’ve Never Seen The Jackal?

A study from Sydney’s Macquarie University has examined the predatory behaviour of the assassin bug (Stenolemus bituberus), describing for the first time the two distinct attack methods used by this araneophagic (spider-eating) insect. Putting the bugs in contact with five species of web-building spiders, Anne Wignall observed the assassin bugs to use either “stalking” or “luring” tactics to hunt their prey in their webs.

When stalking, the assassin bugs will rely on stealth to reach their prey undetected, severing and stretching the silk threads of the web between itself and the spider, and approaching it with an irregular, bouncing locomotion. Exploiting periods of environmental disturbance (caused by wind, for example), together with the vibrations created by its cryptic stepping movements, the assassin bug creates a kind of “smokescreen” effect to mask its approach.

When luring, however, the assassin bug will manipulate the silk vibrations to deliberately reveal its location on the web and draw the spider to it, plucking the threads to emulate the twitching, panicked movements of ensnared prey for up to twenty minutes. “The spider thinks it’s getting a meal, but instead gets eaten itself,” says Wignall.

Prior to striking and killing the spider when in reach, the assassin bugs were observed to engage in unusual behaviour known as “prey tapping.” The assassin bug will tap its prey from above with its antennae to apparently reduce its ability to respond to the impending attack, Robert Jackson of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya likening its effect to that of hypnotism.

Now this is all very elaborate and apparently successful, but we all know spiders are not that stupid. Lord knows if one asked me to do something, I sure as hell wouldn’t refuse, so they’ve definitely got something there. Plus we all know spiders talk,* which could make life pretty difficult for those assassin bugs I’d imagine. Because you can’t be an assassin if your victims can see you and your wide-open bag of tricks coming, right?

So poor Assassin Bug would finally get an assignment, which is awesome because he’s just been sitting at home doing fuck-all for months because the pickings are slim when there are so many other assassin bugs around. It’s like, “Hey, so I heard an Achaearanea extridium moved in down town?”

“Yeah, Lindsay already picked him off last week.”


He would manage to finish Mass Effect 2 in like 20 hours, sort his entire mp3 library by sub genre and bpm, plus read a bunch of chess endgame books he found under his bed, so it wouldn’t be a total loss, but having not eaten in months, he’ll have spent most of his unemployment either snapping at people on the street who asked him for the time (“Do I look like I can afford a watch? Jesus.”), or passed out in a hungry stupour.

But then his agent (or whatever the guy who organises these things is called) will call him up like, “The Pholcus phalangioides who moved into the Achaearanea extridium’s place…” and the Assassin Bug will be all,

“You serious?!”

“Just hang up.”

“Okay. Sorry.”

He’ll head to the Pholcus phalangioides’ web, knocking off a bystanding snail on the way because it looked at him funny, and then the caterpillar barista who accidentally burnt his coffee because it was the first one he’s been able to afford in forever and he was really looking forward to it. He’ll also kill the terrified kitchen-hand who will try to make him another one but can’t froth the milk properly because he only knows how to wash dishes because he dropped out of high school to be a musician, only to be kicked out of a really shit band after one rehursal because he didn’t know what a chord was.

Then at the Pholcus phalangioides’ web he’ll be plucking and stretching like mad for like ten minutes before Pholcus phalangioides will come over all, “Do you mind? I have to get up early tomorrow. Get the fuck off my web.”

The desperate Assassin Bug will rush over and start tapping him on the head all, “Oooooh…. Oooooh….!”

“Oh my God, Stop it. I’m going back to bed.”

“Oh. Okay. Sorry.”

And the Assassin Bug will look so pathetic that the Pholcus phalangioides will feel sorry for him and be like, “You’ve seen The Jackal, right?”

“The one with Bruce Willis?”



“Okay well anyway, there’s this scene with a boombox–”

“A boombox?”


“Who the hell calls them boomboxes?”

“Do you want my advice or not?”

“Okay. Sorry.”

“Anyway, there’s this scene with a boombox…”

Then later that night the Pholcus phalangioides will be woken up again, this time by some excessively loud bad techno and he’ll stumble sleepily out of his curled-up dead leaf going, “Oh my god, Assassin Bug, you can’t use my own advice on me! What is the matter with you?”

The next morning the Assassin Bug’s agent (or whatever the guy who organises these things is called) will leave a message on his machine all like, “Why the fuck is that Pholcus phalangioides still alive? Why the fuck didn’t I use one of my other guys? You arsehole. Wait, what is all that racket? What did I tell you kids about raves on my front porch?! Oh, its you. I was just– Uggggh….”

* Which is why you should never kill one unless you want five more to come to their funeral.

Journal of Ethology Paper // New Scientist for the video that inexplicably won’t embed // Top picture from Jeffrey Friedl’s blog

– bec


Filed under Insects, Science

Wandering Ponies #4

Ahh, the Internet.

It’s been a while between Wandering Ponies and the Internet has been providing some mad lolz of late, so bear with me while I indulge. Or you know, try and enjoy the mad lolz. If that’s what you’re into. I’m not one to assume. Plus you look like a busy person. You probably don’t have time for mad lolz. I don’t know. Hey nice tie. What are those, birds? Yeah that’s cool. Hey do you reckon you could make an entire tie out of a bird? That would be wild. It’d have to be a pretty big bird though. What? Oh okay, you’re busy. Sorry, just saying I like your tie. Jesus.

Anyway, first up, one of the best services the Internet has provided in, I don’t know, a long time: BIG ASS MESSAGE. Perfect for those times when you need to ask this, or this.

When it comes time to give your kids Teh Drugs Talk, best you don’t show them this. Because giant teddy bears who cough up business men and whack giant pigeons with street lamps are AMAZING:

Novelty Tumblrs make me infinitely happy, and these two are among the best new ones around. There’s Godzilla Haiku, because you might be a hungry reptile the size of a twenty-storey building, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have feelings. And Michael Buble Being Stalked By A Velociraptor. Because dude has it coming to him.

Next, if you think Running Ponies has an unhealthy obsession with sex, and sea creatures, and sex, you obviously haven’t visited the Hectocotyli blog. Dude makes even me blush. And giggle like a school girl. Or both, simultaneously.

And finally, because everyone these days seems to have forgotten what ACTING is about, I give you: DEATH DISC:

Balloon horse by Andrea Galvani

Happy Easter.

– bec xox

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Filed under Animals, Archosaurs, Science, Sea Creatures, Video

Harden the Fuck Up, Dying Temnothorax Unifasciatus

For a recent study published in Current Biology, Jurgen Heinze and Bartosz Walter from the University of Regensburg monitored the behaviour of over a hundred terminally ill ants. By observing 28 Temnothorax unifasciatus colonies containing individuals infected with Metarhizium anisopliae, a contageous, parasitic fungus, they found that these ants instinctively removed themselves from the nest to die in seclusion. As fungus pathogens can be easily spread through contact between infected and healthy individuals, Heinze and Walter suggest that this withdrawal from the colony could be evidence of an innate altruistic trait.

Having treated 70 worker ants with the deadly fungus spores, they recorded the behaviour of the 52 individuals that died within ten days of infection. The eight individuals who died with no evidence of spores notwithstanding, 70% of the infected individuals were observed to withdraw themselves from the nest before expiring. A further 21% were found dead outside the nest, but this happened overnight, so the researchers can’t be sure whether they left voluntarily or were actively removed. There were no observed instances of spore-treated ants being removed or attacked by healthy workers, however.

To refute the alternate theory that this behaviour is caused by pathogen host manipulation, as spores can be dispersed over a wider area when an infected individual ventures away from the nest, 70 uninfected individuals were exposed to 95% carbon dioxide to dramatically accelerate their aging. What Heinze and Walter observed in these moribund ants was the same tendency of social withdrawal prior to death, stating, “Actively leaving the nest and breaking off all social interactions thus occurred regardless of whether the individuals were infected or not.”

During the period leading up to their death, the infected and moribund ants weren’t treated any differently by the healthy workers. They would still engage in both active and passive interactions with their colony until it was time to leave. Once they left, the dying ants would never attempt to return to the nest.

Desert Locust nymph infected by Metarhizium anisopliae

Now while this might seem like an unusually selfless act, I’m willing to bet those dying ants won’t budge until they’ve milked every ounce of sympathy, gratitude, extra helpings of discarded milkshake and so on from the colony first. Or they’ll sulk like mad until they realise no one will miss them and then eventually clear off. But either way, it kind of renders any claim to altruism pretty much void in my books. Like, they’d all be happily marching towards some three-day-old chicken wing, playing whatever the new politically-correct name for Chinese Whispers is, “I have light bulbs made of dirt in my underpants and this email smells like a purple fax machine… LOL!!!!!1!” when one of them suddenly clutches his side all like, “Erm, you guys go ahead, I’ll just be a minute.”

“Dude, that’s not how you fix a stitch, you have to stretch your thorax, not scratch at it.”

“Oh, okay. Thanks…”

But the itching won’t go away, and no amount of, “What? Oh, no it’s really nothing, I just wore some old sweater to bed last night and forgot to use fabric softener so it was wicked itchy. Boy, did I learn my lesson! Guys?” will convince them that he’s not sick and pretty soon the expedition will come to a grinding halt.

“Look man, we all know you’re dying. It’s so obvious. But, you know, we didn’t want to say anything straight away, like, “Dead ant walking! Holy shit, move aside, this guy’s a goner!” because we’re not that heartless. Like, that time when you pretended to be tying your shoelaces when really you were scratching your gaster? We didn’t say anything. But come on, you’re not even wearing any shoes! Anyway, it really is time for you to, erm, “vacate the premises,” so to speak. For the team. You understand…”

And the infected ant will be all, “Oh okay. Fair enough. I don’t want you guys to, you know, die a slow and painful and itchy death like me. It’s cool, I’ll just go away and make a nest somewhere and perish. Alone. Oh, on second thoughts, I’ll probably be too sick and alone to make a nest for myself. I’ll just have to stand out in the cold and wait. For death. It’s supposed to rain tonight, right? That’s okay, I’m just going to die anywa—”

“Okay, sounds good.”

“What? That’s it? I bust my hump every day for this colony and–”

“Ugh. Fine. Does anyone here know this guy and want to say goodbye? Anyone? You there, dude with the big head, you know him?”

And some nervous-looking ant with a bulbous head will suddenly feel hundreds of compound eyes on him as he mutters in a very tiny voice, “What, me? Him? I don’t know, I don’t meet a lot of ants these days and the ones I do meet all look the same…”

Then another ant will pipe up, all like, “Hey weren’t you on that expedition last month where half the workers got stepped on by a labrador and you only got out of it alive because you were trapped in a huge protective bubble of saliva?”

And the infected ant will be like, “Yeah?”

“Thought so. Wait, what? No, no, guys, I don’t really know him. I just know of him. I’m not making a speech or anything, if that’s what you’re asking.”

So the colony will be like, “Well, we tried. We’d get Bighead over there to give you a hug or something, but then he’d probably get infected too, and we kinda need him to help carry that chicken wing back because it’ll probably be heavy. So. You know…”

“What about a brief applause then? Air-kisses? Can you at least bring me back some chicken before I head off? I’ll probably be too weak to find my own food pretty soon…”


“Alright fine. I’m going. Bunch of ungrateful shits…”

I heard that. Wow. Hate that guy. What an emo.”

“Hey can we get ice cream on the way to the chicken wing?”

“I don’t see why not!”

Original Paper // Not Exactly Rocket Science.

More on ants:

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

You’re Not God, Desert Ants.

Back To Work, Sleepy Fire Ant!

– bec

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