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.
Tag Archives: insects
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.
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:
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.
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.
“God made bees, but the devil made wasps”
I’ve always hated wasps. They seemed like bees’ evil cousins. Bees, I was told as a boy, wouldn’t bother you if you didn’t bother them. (Though it’s hard not to bother them when you don’t know they’re in your can of Coke.) Bees make honey. They pollinate flowers. When combined with birds, they somehow make babies. Wasps, however, have all the sting with none of the sweetness. They don’t even have the decency to die when they sting you, which makes them extra fearless. They hover over food court trash cans and investigate the sweat on your forehead, waving wildly like a gun in a madman’s hand.
I’ve always hated wasps, but only when I began studying zoology did I learn how insidious they truly are. There are wasps that lay eggs in ants’ brains, and wasps that zombify cockroaches in order to keep them as living incubators of their young. (Not that I have any great love for roaches, either.) But perhaps the most striking example of their nefariousness is one wasps’ epic battle with a butterfly, in which both species toy with a colony of ants like gods might begin world wars between mere mortals.
January 5, 1929 — I have now fully resolved to kill Doctor Henry Moore, and a recent incident has shown me how I shall do it… A party from Uganda brought in a black with a queer illness which I can’t yet diagnose. He was lethargic, with a very low temperature, and shuffled in a peculiar way. Most of the others were afraid of him and said he was under some kind of witch-doctor spell; but Gobo, the interpreter, said he had been bitten by an insect. Spectral-looking — I don’t wonder the boys lay it to black magic. They seem to have seen cases like it before, and say there’s really nothing to do about it.
— H. P. Lovecraft, “Winged Death,” 1933
The Kingdom of Mali, 1375. It is the golden age of this African empire, with trade flourishing between its polar cities of Marrakesh and Timbuktu. Islam is growing here in Central Africa, due to a persuasive peace between local Central Africans and educated immigrant Arabs. But the kingdom is ruled by a cruel and arrogant despot, Sultan Diata II, whose lavish train of elephants, slaves, and golden carriages on his pilgrimage to Mecca made the continent gasp at his ostentatious display of wealth. Unfortunately for Diata, his days of opulence are numbered. The North African historian Ibn Khaldoun wrote that the Sultan “had been smitten with the sleeping sickness, which frequently affects the inhabitants of that region, especially the chieftains… Those afflicted are virtually never awake or alert. Sultan Diata had suffered for a duration of two years, after which, he died.”
It’s the last day of Ant Week, unfortunately. I have so many species of ants to write about, but since each deserves its own post, I’ll have to save some of my favorites for another time. After four posts in a row about ants as brutal, painful, robotic dominators of the planet, I thought I’d finish up with something more light-hearted. Light-hearted, whimsical, and deeply disturbing. An ant out of Willy Wonka’s subconscious.
The honey ant is not a species but a caste within certain species, also known as a replete. The honey ant caste is found in species which inhabit deserts worldwide, though most famously the Myrmecocystus genus of the American Southwest. To understand their importance within the nest, you must understand ants’ relationship to food. Most ants have two stomachs: One for themselves, and one “community stomach” or crop that stores food for hungry members of the colony, regurgitated mouth-to-mouth. Honey ants are an extreme extension of this cooperative ethic: their bodies are living larders in which worker ants store liquids, sugars, and fats that they’ve collected. In a desert environment in which food supply is scarce or uncertain, these mobile pantries are indispensable. Their abdomens swollen with food to the size of small grapes, they remain underground in the nest until the lean times, when the other ants come to extract nourishment from them. Like the cacti which store rainwater for the entire year during the monsoons, so too do the repletes’ abdomens swell during the seasonal rains to act as reservoirs for the thirsty months ahead.
But the concentration of sweet ambrosia in their behinds makes them prime targets for other animals, including insectivores like moles and large mammals like badgers and humans, as well as other ant species. It’s not uncommon for an ant species to raid a honey ant colony, not to devour the repletes, but to capture and enslave them for their own nest. The benefit of having storing your food in living members of your colony, though, is that they’re willing to defend the nest at all costs, like any other ant. Obese and unable to move except by rolling, their only defense is to voluntarily explode, coating the invaders with a sticky syrup that traps them as the reinforcements arrive. The explosive chemicals within the repletes are still caustic after death, burning and poisoning the marauders like napalm. The replete is, as far as I know, the only animal capable of self-combustion; a tiny time-bomb of butt honey.
And that’s the honey ant. Speaking of Mr. Creosote and gluttony, join us tomorrow as Ant Week gives way to a new theme: Vice Week!