Guess What Birds & Bees (Termites &
Ants) Are Up to When No One’s Looking
Of the 1.3 million species catalogued by science, give or take a few hundred thousands, there may be over seven million others, still to be discovered. Evolution has been busy, since even those two figures combined may be a fraction of all species that have ever lived.
So, although we may’ve all come from a single organism, after millions of years there’s little reason to see humans and animals having much in common by now. And yet, we do. But why we often see them, or us, acting as if we’re even closer to each other?
How come only now we caught up with birds behaving as if they’re tending to the funeral of one of their own? Or that bees seem to be roasting an enemy invader? Is that a two-step body device that nature outfit termites to explode on command? And since when ants know Internet protocol?
Are these latest findings putting a dent into the even-minded rationale that, whenever animals seem to behave like people, it may be just a misperception by the people observing it? Or we’re simply jumping to assumptions, as new scientific breakthroughs dig up way more data that’s possible to process at this point?
Probably a little bit of both, and a lot of yet unknown factors. What the new wealth of field data, and the advanced technology
that informs it, need is the formulation of new theories, to help enlarge our understanding of animal and insect behavior. Good science takes long-term observation and insight, and only leaps forward once all the elements have reached critical mass.
As it probably occurred to you the first time you saw your uncle Bob parading naked on the rooftop of the nearby building, that’s the moment to keep all your options available, and your mind defiantly open. You correctly decided not to shout, then, fearful it’d startle him off the ledge, right? The same caution to proceed may be required while reading today’s post.
THE MOURNING DOVES
Researchers in California put together an experiment that may have documented for the first time how at least some bird species react to the death of one of their own. According to a Animal Behavior article, a team led by University of California at Davis professor Teresa Iglesias studied how they reacted to dead birds and other objects placed in local backyards.
The birds, western scrub jays (no, not doves, but we couldn’t resist using them on the title), were indifferent to pieces of wood and stuffed jays, but once noticing a dead one, made differentiated calls to others to come and gather around it. According to the paper, ‘the calls they made, known as “zeeps”, “scolds” and “zeep-scolds”,’ attracted new jays from far away to the site.
The birds also stopped foraging for food a full day, in a change of behavior. The researchers believe that ‘the jays see the presence of a dead bird as information to be publicly shared, just as they do the presence of a predator.’ As for the stuffed jays, the birds mobbed them, as they do in the wild with a competitor or a sick bird.
THE FRYING BEES
Now, for all those horrible videos you may find on the Internet, when a wasp invades a colony and slaughters all the bees, before stealing their hard-made honey, comes a pay-back footage of sorts. It shows how this time the bees got the upper hand, dominated the wasp, and literally fried it in intense heat, generated when they contracted their wings.
If watching them die in the early videos is beeporn, seeing them getting back at the wasp is the equivalent of an X-rated version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, playing on with insects. The infrared footage of the thermal attack, which would be invisible to our naked eye, was shot by University of Wuerzburg’s Barrett Klein and his team.
The terrifying assault is part of the bees defense against invaders, but this is the first time it’s captured on film. The camera was placed in a hole inside the hive. But don’t feel too bad for the wasp. They probably beat bees at most times, and both species are essential for the survival of all others on Earth, including us and the birds.
THE SUICIDE BOMBERS
Another highly organized society of insects, termites, also has sophisticated ways of defending themselves, and even dealing with aging. A team lead by entomologist J. Šobotník has published a study on Science Magazine about how older termite workers develop a ‘two-component suicidal apparatus.’
External pouches, stuffed with ‘copper-containing protein crystals,’ and salivary glands inside the bugs can be activated as a defensive measure. When the colony is under attack, ‘their bodies rupture, and the crystals react with the salivary gland secretion to produce a toxic droplet.’
Such ingenious ‘final solution’ is only found in aging workers, with diminishing capacity to collect food or contribute to the colony. Thus, they may be dispatched to the front lines and act as first-line defenders against invading hordes. Apparently, their society reserves a yet last role to be played by its older generations.
THE FOOD ANTERNET
You may already know this but the way that Internet transfers data is based on an algorithm that calculates how much bandwidth is available at the destination point, before start transferring a file. It’s called the Transmission Control Protocol and it’s designed to optimized the exchange of data.
Now Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon, who’s been studying ants for 20 years, published a study showing that ants do something similar to TCP, when searching for food: the colony sends out an initial scouting party to determine exactly how many workers are necessary according to the food available. Once that is accessed, only a limited number of workers are sent to retrieve it.
With science professor Balaji Prabhakar, also of Stanford, they established parallels between how the Web system works and the colony manages its resources. Just like the TCP prevents data congestion on the Internet, the ants devised a way to avoid waste and keep the food retrieval process at its most efficient.
THE ANTHROPOMORPHIC TRAP
Given these four examples, it’s easy to see why some have no problem equating animal, and insect, behavior to our own. After all, they would say, regardless who started first, often organized societies reflect the overall tide of evolution and move towards the same goals of growth and self preservation.
Perhaps. We’re not sure that these are enough examples to establish a reliable pattern, nor that we’ve seen the bottom of it. Underlying it all, sits the mistrust about our own desire of fit and act in direct coordination with a larger, overarching model of life as we know it.
Of course, the main problem with this picture is that it places us way up the ladder, as trendsetters, when if anything, it’s probably the other way around. Also, it’s fine to consider death, and the threat of annihilation, as common threads, shared across the board by all species. It’s something else entirely, though, to believe there’s a need to express it through ritual.
In other words, believe what you may, but for as long as bees are not captured on film adding spices to the carcasses of their dead enemies, just before devouring them, or termites are not photographed detonating their deadly pouches with no apparent reason, we reserve the right to keep our distance.
We were going to say that maybe if some birds would get caught infatuated with each other, performing silly dance moves and ostensibly displaying their plumage, we’d be willing to concede that there’s something going on here, but they already do that, right?
There’s just one case, then, that would force us to jump up and down and perhaps performing a few silly dance moves of our own: if they, suddenly, would break into an aria of Mozart. Then, there’d be no way around it, and all bets would be resoundingly off.