The residue of design

January 21, 2008


As a scientist, you know you’ve made it when Boing Boing covers your stuff. I recently collaborated with a team of scientists (Steve Yanoviak, Robert Dudley, and George Poinar) on a manuscript coming out in The American Naturalist. It’s about a nematode whose life cycle has it spending time in the guts of birds and ants, and that has a pretty unique way of doing it. Here’s the, um, straight poop.

Worker ants of the species Cephalotes atratus, like many ants of the treetops, have a hankering for bird poop (lots of nitrogen and salts in a piece of bird poop). Some bird poop, however, is infected with the eggs of our nematode parasite. Now most adult worker ants can’t take solid food; they feed it, instead to their brood back in the nest. However, when infected poop is fed to the brood of Cephalotes atratus ants by their older sisters, the nematodes cause the brood to grow up with bright red (dare we say, berry-like?) gasters. In the paper we build a plausible hypothesis that birds mistake the red gasters (now full of nematode eggs) for fruit, harvest them, pass them as feces, the feces are harvested by Cephalotes workers who bring them back to the nest, and the cycle continues (one key bit of evidence–it’s easy to pluck off an infected gaster and much, much harder to remove the gaster of a healthy ant).

There is no evidence this is a voluntary arrangement–we see no advantage to the ants of harboring these nematodes. Rather, this seems to be another case of a parasite, once inside its host and with its hands on the wiring and machinery, tweaking the host to do its bidding (my endocrinologically inclined pal points out that the nematodes and ants share a host of neurochemicals, so replace “hands” above with “hormones”). The nematodes even make infected ants raise their gasters vertically, making the egg-filled butt-berries infinitely pluckable.

Long before there were neurobiologists, apparently, there were parasites paving the way.

Below the fold, the real story of how this sordid story of manipulation came about.

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10 things I like about ants

February 14, 2007

Image from Alex Wild’s amazing

From the home office in Wahoo Nebraska, here are 10 amazing ant facts.

10. If you weighed all the ants in a tropical forest, then weighed all the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, the ants would weigh four time as much.

9. Fire ants are attracted to electricity. No one knows why.

8. The tiniest mature ant colony has 5 workers; the largest has over 100 million.

7. Most ant species have broad diets, but many are incredibly specialized–one eats only spider eggs.

6. Ants invented agriculture–growing fungi on leaves they harvest and mulch–long before humans did.

5. Ants are so successful and common that many ant species specialize on eating other ants.

4. The queens of some ant colonies can live over 10 years, making them some of the longest lived insects.

3. All the worker ants you see are females; all the worker ants from a single colony are most likely sisters.

2. You can recognize the few ant males in a colony by their pinheads and large googley eyes.

1. No ant has been elected to higher office in the United States. Yet.

Visual explanations: what lies ahead

February 10, 2007

I first saw this video by Michael Welsch a couple of weeks ago and was impressed but didn’t think it particularly blogworthy. Then Seth Godin placed it in the proper context.

Publish or perish indeed. Now that the publishing part is free and without friction, and now that a professor can boil down complex topics to vivid videos, why aren’t tens of thousands of professors scrambling to do this?

Welsch’s video has gone totally viral…how many more folks now grok Web 2.0 because of it? Isn’t that one of your jobs as an academic?

You likely have the technology on your computer right now that would allow you to tell a compelling story about your research and at the same time expand and hone your personal brand. If you had to do such a video as a class assignment, what would be the topic?

Always the trendsetter among myrmecologists in the use of new media, here’s a short video by the artiste, Jack Longino (let it load in the background).