Category Archives: Insects

A Natural History of Leopard Print

As both an animal enthusiast and a rockabilly aficionado, it should come as a surprise to no one that I am a huge fan of leopard print. The primal power of leopard print is rooted in two wildly divergent strains of retro glamour, simultaneously stirring up cultural memories of a time before color photography and a time before agriculture. It is 1955 C.E. and it is 19,055 B.C.E. It is Cadillacs and wildebeest, hippies and hunter-gatherers, Zulu royalty and the Rolling Stones, Mickey Hartigay & Jayne Mansfield and Adam & Eve.

And part of me wishes they HAD been Adam & Eve.

Leopard print has never gone out of style — and has probably never not been in style, somewhere on Earth. (Many paleontologists believe that dinosaurs wore leopard-like spots.) Perhaps the reason for its endurance is that its parents are these two very different nostalgias. One is a deep-seeded yearning for the Paleolithic and pre-civilization, a length of time far longer than post-civilization humanity, when we as a species were in a more even conversation with nature and depended more on our physical prowess, our animal senses, and our understanding of the wilderness. To be sure, there are many people on Earth who are not far removed from this lifestyle, but for those of us in the “first world,” nostalgia for the time of spears and shamans exists as a distant cultural memory, perhaps stitched into the threads of our genetic code, like a dream we can’t quite remember yet which tugs on our hearts upon waking. We cannot shake the feeling that something, somehow led us astray from our true identity as the human ape, and adorning ourselves in leopard print reminds us of our species’ connection to wildlife of the world and our once-intimate relationship to it.

The other type of nostalgia, of course, is this:

My perfect world: 80% leopard print, 20% babe.

Continue reading



Ficus. Its name is synonymous with low-maintenance, unobtrusive office plants. But in the wide Ficus genus, there are a few species of fig trees that are anything but tame. In fact, they have a predilection for death and domination. This story is about two distinctly different creatures whose lives are inextricably linked: the strangler fig and the fig wasp. It is a story about sex and murder in Florida. Mostly, it is a story about the mentality and biology of control. One of these partners-in-crime kills by slowly choking the life from its victims, and the other is its accomplice, furthering its domination of the forest with rape and incest. To be sure, you’ll never look at Fig Newtons the same way again.

Continue reading

Water Into Wine

The Son of Man. The Lamb of God. The King of Kings. The Knave of Hearts. The Sultan of Swat. Jesus of Nazareth, also known as the Prince of Peace, and in America, the God of War, was said to perform a string of miracles at the beach town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee in Israel. One of them involved catching a great deal of fish with one net. Another, feeding several thousand people with very little food. And yet another involved walking on water to meet a boat full of his disciples, who were caught in a sudden storm.

"Duuuuude! Watch out for that waaaaaaave!"

Now, Clarke’s Third Law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So nowadays, the miracle of the modern fishing industry, with its deep-sea trawlers, 150-mile longlines, and space-age tracking and echolocation technology, ensure that our nets can catch hundreds of thousands of fish at a time. (Though not for much longer.) And genetic engineering, bolstered by mechanized farming and artificial fertilizers, ensures we can feed the multitudes. (Though not for much longer.) But biologically and technologically speaking, how miraculous is it to walk on water?

Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!

Not very, if you’ve got the right tools, and the right size. The most classic example of animal locomotion on the water’s surface is the water striders, or water skaters, or water scooters, or any of the other collective names for these 500 species of insects that make up the Gerridae family. They are hunters that use surface tension to their advantage; where prey might swim, they float like a bubble. Their short front legs are for grabbing, their middle pair for “skating,” and the hind pair act as rudders. The secret to their unsinkability is the hydrophobic hairs on their legs. Each leg is covered in thousands of fine filaments called microsetae that spread the weight out on the water’s electric “skin” of surface tension, and the grooves in each filament trap tiny air bubbles which add to their buoyancy. So powerful is the effect that a water strider could carry fifteen times its own weight and still remain afloat, and a few species have even adapted to walk the waves of the open ocean.

The ability to walk on water kind of goes to their heads.

But it’s not only insects that have the ability to walk on water. A few reptiles have also evolved to stay high and dry. And more advanced insects have discovered not just how to walk on water, but how to turn water into wine.

Continue reading

Come Hither

It’s not news to anyone that many animals, if not most, possess a far more sophisticated sense of smell than we. For us English-speakers, even the word “smell” conjures malodorous scents before it reminds us of fresh-baked bread. “You smell,” for example, is never a nice thing to hear, unless it’s qualified with “…nice,” or “…like fresh-baked bread.” Though it is the sense most associated with memory, and the larger part of our ability to taste, we tend to ignore our day-to-day scents and only appreciate them when they are new, or particularly wonderful or evil. A dog, for example, seems much less judgmental about the smells in its world, being equally appreciative of flower gardens and strangers’ butts.

But most animals, despite their superior noses, are simply highly attuned to one or a few scents. Bears have the greatest senses of smell, about seven times greater than a bloodhound’s and over 2,000 times better than a human’s, and can smell a carcass from 20 miles away, if the wind is right. But bears are generalists, so they are attuned to a wide range of things. A specialist, like a turkey vulture — the best nose in the bird world, though most birds have little to no sense of smell — can detect rotting meat from several miles away and several miles in the air, but only rotting meat. A shark can detect a single drop of blood in the water from half a mile away. A salmon can smell the particular melange of moss, roots, and soil of its native stream in the ocean at a ratio of one part per trillion. But when it comes to the scent of a woman, there is no bloodhound like a Saturniid moth.

Continue reading

The Deadly Mantis

It’s Kung Fu Week on The Quantum Biologist! Chinese martial arts have been imitating the hunting and defense styles of animals for thousands of years. What can we learn about the animals from the fighting styles? Shaolin Kung Fu has five major animal styles: Tiger, Panther, Crane, Snake, and Dragon. But there are many subcategories from other regions, including Horse, Mantis, Monkey, Frog, and even Duck. We’ll examine three this week.

The insects are known to have some of the fastest moves in the animal kingdom, and there are few moves faster than the strike of the praying mantis. Like the mantis shrimp, its front legs are folded into a hinged, “raptorial” shape that give the impression of a monk with its hands and wrists folded in prayer. A Shaolin monk, of course, because the pose is perfect for a blindingly-fast butt-whupping. While the mantis shrimp uses its claws for punching, the praying mantis’s inside claws are lined with sharp spikes for stabbing and grabbing. As for the attack: Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. A mantis’ forelegs strike and retract in half the time of a human blink. And while they usually prey on insects and spiders, their speed is so great that they will take down animals three times their size: lizards, chameleons, frogs, fish, small mammals, and even birds that stray too close. Even hummingbirds.

According to legend, it was watching a mantis kill a bird that inspired both the Southern and the Northern Praying Mantis Style of Kung Fu. Southern Style Praying Mantis, developed independently from the Northern Style, evolved from the Dragon Style of Chinese boxing and is possibly the more obviously derived from its animal inspiration. Southern Style Praying Mantis begins with a low stance, giving the fighter a lower and sturdier center of gravity. Footwork is fast, but use of kicks are limited. As you’d expect, Mantis Style fighters focus primarily on incredibly quick jabs to pressure points, holding their wrists up like their namesakes. Training to fight in the Mantis style means strengthening your forearms and fingers to be able to snap a trachea in an instant. You might wear 60-lb iron rings on each wrist while training, or do push-ups using only your thumbs. The result is lightning-quick hands that dismantle your opponent by their joints, or grab them and pull them into your sphere of influence.

The “mantis” is the one with the hair.

Continue reading

Raiders of the Ark

To the builders of Ark Encounter, a state-sponsored theme park in Kentucky espousing that the flood in Genesis was a historical event: While carpenters you must have many, and animal handlers at least a few, I imagine you don’t have a proper biologist on your crew. Before you build a replica of the famous Ark, let me give you a few pointers that may help you with construction:

  • There are between 3 and 30 million species of animal on Earth. Perhaps more.
  • 40,000 of these are spiders, and perhaps 1 million of those species are beetles. Happy hunting.
  • The Ark was supposedly 300 x 50 x 30 cubits — a “cubit” being about 18 inches — which means the boat was roughly 450 x 75 x 45 feet, or roughly the same carrying capacity as 569 railroad freight cars. No doubt your carpenters and engineers already know this. What your engineers may not have accounted for is that 569 train cars filled with 1,600 tons of animals do not float.
  • Especially not when you include the aquarium. You may have thought that Noah at least got to ignore the aquatic animals, but unfortunately, when you flood the Earth with freshwater until it covers the mountains, neither most freshwater nor most saltwater animals can survive. The ocean’s salinity level would have been merely “brackish,” a mix of salty water and fresh which most aquatic animals cannot tolerate. So you’ll want to account for several trillion gallons of water in several wooden aquariums, including potable freshwater for yourself and the terrestrial animals.
  • Might want to reconsider the size of a “cubit,” huh?
  • The ark is typically pictured with a single pair of giraffes, their heads sticking out like a couple loaves of french bread in a grocery bag. There are at least five subspecies of giraffe. Please do not forget all your giraffe-holes.
  • There was undoubtedly a separate room for the Tasmanian devils and the honey badgers. Probably a dungeon, with restraints.
  • A giant panda consumes between 20 and 40 lbs of bamboo daily. Account for storage capacity for 6,300 lbs of bamboo for your pandas alone. The elephants will need 60 tons of food for themselves.
  • In Genesis 7:2-3, it says:

    Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.

    Of fowls also of the air by sevens, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.

    This means that only the “unclean” animals were taken in single pairs, while “clean” animals were taken 14 at a time. Given that there are roughly 10,000 birds on Earth, for example, that means your Ark has to account for 140,000 individual birds. Even squeezed tight, there is not enough floor space on your current Ark model for the 100,000 square feet of newspaper Noah needs to change every day.

  • Here’s a trickier question: Where did Noah keep the termites? As an “unclean” animal, perhaps there were only two of each species aboard, a queen and a male. But the paradox here is that a giant anteater, which primarily eats termites, will eat 30,000 in a single day. And as it lacks teeth of any kind, or hydrochloric acid in its stomach as most mammals have (the formic acid from its ant and termite prey works just as well), you have to feed the anteater termites. So, ignoring the pangolins, the tuandaras, the aardwolves, the numbats, and all other anteaters and ant-eaters, a single pair of giant anteaters would need 12.6 million termites to survive the 7-month journey. Seeing how the Ark is built entirely of wood, you can see how this might present a problem.

    Continue reading

  • ¡Cojones!

    I’m Ever Upper Class High Society
    God’s Gift To Ballroom Notoriety
    I Always Fill My Ballroom
    The Event Is Never Small
    The Social Pages Say I’ve Got
    The Biggest Balls Of All

    –AC/DC, “Big Balls”

    The zoology world is atwitter this week with news from the world of insects. Stop the presses! We’ve discovered the animal with the largest testicles in proportion to its body! Yes, it’s the Tuberous Bush Cricket, a katydid with huevos that make up 14% of its body weight. To put that in perspective, fellas, it would be like hoisting around 11 lb prairie oysters. The human head is 8-12 lbs, so imagine dragging your own head around in your nutsack. You’d literally need a wheelbarrow.

    I’m rarely one to jump on bandwagons when it comes to the latest news, but how could I resist this little nugget about enormous McNuggets? It gives me yet another excuse to talk about insects and sexual selection. We’ve already discussed the mystery of the mammalian penis, so it’s about time we devoted some thought to our jungleberries, as well. I want to explore the reason for diversity in the size and shape of bollocks in the animal world. And I want to test my writerly skills to see if I can write an entire article about fuzzy danglers without using the same euphemism for “testicles” twice.

    Continue reading