I’ve been hard on you this month, regular readers. Every post in October has been a long-stemmed essay on either ecology or the history of European scientific exploration in the 19th century. So today, I’m going to reward you with something stupid and cute.
When it comes to conservation, all the attention goes to the Big Cats: the lions, the tigers, the jaguars, the cheetahs, the cougars. The zoologically initiated might also pay attention to the medium-sized cats: the lynxes, the bobcats, the ocelots. The way they’re promoted, you’d get the impression that our housecats are simply miniaturized lions; that after Mr. Fluffers, it’s pumas all the way up. But in fact, Felidae is a remarkably diverse family which includes many small wild cats, mostly unknown to the general public. Though, in our era of coddled, infantilized house pets, it’s a complete mystery why.
This is the story of a mythological animal. The animal itself is real, but the myth surrounding it is a species unto itself.
Lemmings are hamster-like rodents which live around the Arctic Circle in North America, Europe and Asia. They’re most notable for their fecundity — a female can produce litters of eight pups every five weeks — and for sustaining every carnivore in the Arctic. They don’t hibernate, but tunnel through the snow in the winter, ensuring that foxes, wolverines, snowy owls, ermines, lynxes, and wolves have a steady supply of food through the white months. Let’s be frank: Lemmings are the Tribbles of the Arctic. They are a fast-multiplying, too-cute food source, the ecological equivalent of tater tots. Sure, the species exists for its own purposes as well. But perhaps my carnivore allegiances are showing when I say that lemmings are a species that exists to be eaten. Without them, the Arctic ecosystem would collapse.
But one thing lemmings don’t do is commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. Every four years or so, the local lemming population goes into a sudden decline as the lemmings migrate to new territory in search of food. Along the way, they usually encounter bodies of water, and try to go around them. If they can’t, they’ll try to swim across them, and inevitably many of them drown. But the idea that lemmings are hard-wired to control their own booming populations by throwing themselves into the sea is ridiculous, the stuff of medieval legend. Yet that is the animal we know today, and it’s worth examining the mythological lemming. It teaches us much about ourselves.
Good morning, sunshine. Or is it afternoon already? Did you have fun last night? How’s your head? Yep, you know you’re not supposed to mix tequila with Kahlua. I’m going to take advantage of this excruciatingly bright day in New Mexico to discuss a subject close to my heart, my aching brain, and my liver: Alcohol tolerance and abuse in the animal kingdom.
One of the many great things about booze is that it occurs naturally in the wild. Fermentation, the process by which a yeast transforms sugar into alcohol (and its by-product, carbon dioxide), needs no brewmaster or whiskey still. Yeast is blowing freely in the wind, and wild grapes were turning to wine long before we were cultivating chardonnay. Nutritionally speaking, alcohol is a double-edged sword: it’s extremely energy-rich, but it’s also toxic and makes you fall down. So it makes sense that animals which eat fruit would develop a tolerance to alcohol, gaining its energy while avoiding getting so drunk that they start hitting on their predators at the bar. (Or, if you’re a fruit bat, flying into a tree.) And the tolerance these animals have for liquor would put the most gin-blossomed tippler to shame.
Meet the greatest drinker in the world: the pen-tailed tree shrew. This tiny, unassuming nocturne from the rainforests of Southeast Asia may not look like a heavyweight, but pound-for-pound, it could drink you under the table. After all, it subsists entirely on a diet of palm nectar which is fermented by wild yeast to a fine 3.8 alcohol content. To mimic the tree shrew, you’d have to survive on only beer for your entire life. (Which is technically possible, I’ve heard from a bartender friend, but not recommended.) Despite consuming what would be, for us, the equivalent of nine glasses of wine a day, and having a blood alcohol level that is constantly above any country’s legal limit, the tree shrew remains sober. How it metabolizes its alcohol so efficiently is still a mystery, but scientists believe that the answer, when found, could present us with a cure for alcohol poisoning, and perhaps a weapon against alcoholism. Right now, most alcohol research is done on lab rats, and rodents tend to avoid alcohol by preference. But the tree shrew actually resembles the earliest primates on a taxonomic level, and could give us insight into our own alcohol tolerance and predilections. What’s more, we’re not the only primates out there that like to hit the sauce.
Unlike army ants or leafcutter ants, there is only one genus and one species of bullet ant. But if you’re stung by one, you’ll never forget it. The Central and South American bullet ants derive their name from the pain of their sting, which victims liken to being gunshot. Or, to put it more colorfully, its sting is “like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.” That’s according the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a scientific scale of insect sting-to-pain ratios, on which the bullet ant ranks the highest. Its sting is thirty times worse than that of a wasp, and can paralyze the affected area for up to 24 hours.
You want some of this?
Considering it’s got the most painful sting in the Hymenopteran order of bees, wasps, and ants, you might be surprised to know that there are people who actively seek it out in order to be stung. The bullet ant is crucial to the male initiation rites of the Satere-Mawe people of Brazil. After the jump, we’ll examine their masochistic rituals, the meaning of manhood in diverse cultures, and how Nature influences it. In other words, the Quantum Biologist is going where he’s never gone before: Into the fetid swamps of Sociology.
And boy, is it dark in here.
What separates man from the beasts? Language? Dolphins would beg to differ. Tools? Even birds can use ’em. Well, at least we’ll always have good old fire, right?
Ah, human exceptionalism. You never fail to fail me.
Bonobos are the sixth member of our “great ape” family, a little-known species because they live only in the Congo, and because zoos refuse to display them, on account of the fact that they are the horniest animals alive. Bonobos have gained a sort of cult following among antropologists and animal aficionados as the “other chimps” we hope we’re more closely related to; while chimpanzees are violent and warlike, bonobos — which are smaller, slighter, and far more bipedal — settle all disputes with sex. All kinds of sex. Male-on-male, male-on-female, female-on-female, male-on-female-on-female-on-male, hanging upsidedown, anal, oral, you name it. If we (by which I mean, “freaky liberals”) look to peaceful, sex-crazy bonobo culture as a model society we could learn from, it turns out that bonobos also can learn a great deal from us. Including how to make and use fire.