Here’s the latest lesson from the ant world: kidnapped babysitters may not be the most reliable. Evolutionary myrmecologist Susanne Foitzik studies a species of ants that, instead of using its own workers to raise its young, kidnaps larvae from another species and puts them to work as babysitters. But, she’s found, the free labor has a price.
Archaeoentomology is a strange little corner of archaeology. Its practitioners search for signs of ancient bug life—fossilized eggs, old fly pupae, the like—in dig sites to tell, for instance, whether a body lay exposed before burial. One area they’d really like to know more about is what moves into coffins with bodies once they’ve, ah, started to go to earth. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout, to be sure, but which worms?
Six weeks ago, a Dutch entomologist launched a crowdsourcing site, SplashTeller, that lets motorists report the date, time, and location of their latest outing and the number of pulverized insects they subsequently pick off their license plates. Judging from the late six weeks of data, he estimates that 133 billion bugs are killed by cars each month in the Netherlands alone. He has high hopes for future work with the site, Wired recounts:
“This information will give us an idea of the amount of insect presence in certain locations and also about their flight patterns. So far we have never been able to chart insect behaviour in this manner,” [he says.] As well as geographical variations in insect density, Van Vliet has been able to chart variations between different times of the day; and the influence of weather conditions. As the data continues to come in, he hopes to be able to document seasonal changes.
License plates, he says, are a scientist’s dream when it comes to sampling—they are all the same size but dispersed around the entire country. The only difficulty is finding other people who are as gung-ho about counting dead insects.
In New Zealand, there’s a running joke that the sheep outnumber the people. What’s not funny is the consequence of all those woolly creatures: poop. Piles and piles of it. To reduce this overflowing cornucopia of crap, the government is calling in reinforcements in the form of 11 Australian dung beetle species.
The country’s excess poo not only finds it way into water reservoirs, it also releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere–and to put that in perspective, cow crap alone accounts for 14 percent of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. “One of the big things basically is the accumulation of dung on pasture surfaces,” Landcare New Zealand research scientist Shaun Forgie told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It’s bad for cattle because more dung increases the “zone of repugnance, which means there’s an area around dung which is basically offensive to grazing livestock…. They don’t want to eat around that, so unless you break feed, you’re losing that surface area to graze on.”
Dung beetles cut the crap by feasting on it: adults lay eggs in manure, and the baby beetles feed on the scrumptious scat, devouring an entire pile within 48 hours. Farmers are excited about the project, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:
Just like the lengendary male model who fought to valiantly to become an ambi-turner, cockroaches prefer not to turn left.
Researchers say it’s a safe bet that the roaches don’t have Zoolander’s mental block. Instead, they believe that the right-turn bias shown by the creepy-crawly insects indicates that most roaches favor their right side, just as most humans are right-handed.
For the study, published in the Journal of Insect Behavior, researchers released the roaches into a Y-shaped tube, enticing them forward to the fork in the road with odors of vanilla and ethanol. ScienceNOW explains what happened next:
Cockroaches with intact antennae preferred the tube’s right fork 57% of the time. This right-side bias persisted even after the scientists chopped off one of the bugs’ sensitive antennae, used to sense touch and smells.
This finding adds to the evidence that many animals show a side-preference akin to human handedness; for example, one study showed horses to be predominantly right-hoofed.
Meanwhile, maybe homeowners battling roach infestations can exploit our new understanding of these right-legged cockroaches, and strategically place roach traps to the right of suspicious cracks and holes.
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Image: Texas A&M University / Hong Liang
A cricket’s constant chirping may seem a bit ballsy, but just wait until you hear about their testicles. For at least one species of cricket, the tuberous bushcricket (Platycleis affinis), the testicles take up 14 percent of the insect’s body mass!
The Daily Mail made a stunning observation:
To put this into perspective, a man with the same proportions would have to carry testicles weighing as much as five bags of sugar each.
What do you get if you fake your fighting skills, little wasp? A walloping, that’s what. A recent study says that Polistes dominulus, commonly known as paper wasps, punish individuals who misrepresent their combat abilities. Yes, you could call those fakers paper gangsters.
Paper wasps show their strength all over their faces, New Scientist reports: Fragmented facial markings are a warning that the fight won’t be easy. Elizabeth Tibbetts and Amanda Izzo wanted to determine why wasps don’t cheat–why weaklings don’t also opt for a don’t-mess-with-me facial pattern.
They altered submissive wasps’ faces to appear more dominant and then sent them into the ring for a confrontation. Though at first the truly stronger wasp submitted, it later attacked with more vigor. The faker got a harsher smackdown than did weak wasps that showed their true colors.
In a different twist, the researchers made some weak wasps strong by giving them hormones, but left the wasps’ faces unaltered. The opponent wasps refused to yield, and continued to fight the enhanced weak-faces. Wasps with no facial alterations, the scientists say, entered into stable relationships, perhaps hinting at why it doesn’t pay to pretend.
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Discoblog: This Fish Has Seen the Enemy, and It Is Him
Discoblog: Each Shot of Mezcal Contains a Little Bit of DNA From the “Worm”
The blue pepper-pot beetle, St. John’s jellyfish, and the queen’s executioner beetle–these distinctly British-sounding organisms share a few things in common. For one, they all have brand new names, thanks to the ingenuity of the British public.
The trio received these new names from public entries in a competition organized by The Guardian, Natural England, and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Other similarities include (perhaps unsurprisingly) that they all live in the UK, and that they’re all threatened with extinction.
One usually pictures an organism’s discoverer naming her find, or the organism’s common name coming from obvious characteristics (like lighting bugs or fireflies, for example), but sometimes critters just slip through the cracks; these ten were previously known only by their official scientific classifications. That made it hard, the competition’s organizers suspected, for the public to care whether or not these rare creatures disappeared. The naming competition, thought up by Guardian columnist George Monbiot, was meant to make the threatened organisms more identifiable and relatable to the public.
Would you eat honey called Dulles Delight? LAX Natural? LaGuardia Lip-Smackers? Some Germans are enjoying Düsseldorf Natural, honey made from airport-dwelling bees. The Düsseldorf International Airport and 7 other airports have employed bees as “biodetectives”: inspectors test the bees’ honey for pollutants as an indirect way to monitor airport air quality.
As The New York Times reports, these bees come from a long line of other insect inspectors–including aquatic bugs for testing water quality. Though the airports still use more-traditional sensors to test for air pollutants, in 2006 they added these buzzing mini-inspectors to their testing fleet.
The German Orga Lab tests the honey, made from around 200,000 bees, twice a year for contaminants such as hydrocarbons and heavy metals. They hope to monitor changes over long stretches of time to see if the bees can pick up air quality differences.
Martin Bunkowski, an environmental engineer for the Association of German Airports, told The New York Times that the project is appealing because the insects’ job seems clear.
“It’s a very clear message for the public because it is easy to understand,” Bunkowski said.
Currently, the Düsseldorf honey is looking good–contaminants were far below official limits, and the honey was comparable in quality to that harvested in more scenic locales. Most importantly, since the local bee club gives the honey out for no charge, the sweet stuff is effectively duty free.
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DISCOVER: The Alluring and Alien Sights of a Bee in Ultra Close-up (photo gallery)
Image: flickr /cygnus921
Butterfly in the sky, researchers wonder how you fly. To this end, Harvard University’s Hiroto Tanaka and the University of Tokyo’s Isao Shimoyama have built a butterfly doppelganger by combining angelic plastic wings, balsa wood, and rubber bands.