strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Posts Tagged ‘ants’

Bears Nosh on Ants, and that Makes Everything Different

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 30, 2015

(Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

(Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

My latest for Takepart:

In a remote mountain meadow in central Colorado, treehopper nymphs and western thatching ants have come to a mutual understanding, and it makes for a case study in just how nuanced the natural world can be, and how small changes—changes we might consider trivial—can send huge effects cascading through a habitat.

The nymphs are the immature stage of treehopper insects, and they’re not wonderful to look at, with spines, and hairs, and legs sticking out everywhere from their tiny black-and-gray bodies.  (Think Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly.”) When you’re having a John Denver moment about the beautiful shrubbery on that mountain meadow, they’re clustered along the stems and branches, busily sucking out the sugar-rich phloem.  But the ants think they’re adorable. They keep the nymphs safe from marauding beetles and spiders.  In return, the ants get to eat the sweet honeydew excreted by the nymphs.

This lovely bit of mutualism is part of a larger food web extending, improbably, to the black bears living nearby. Black bears, it turns out, like to eat ants. Lots of ants. In Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park ants make up nearly a third of the diet for black bears, by volume. And yep, grizzlies Read the rest of this entry »

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Visualizing the Insides of an Ant’s Head

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 15, 2014


I’m pretty sure I don’t understand the science here.  I just like the image.

This is from a new study in some massively obscure scientific journal.  If I am reading it right, it describes a technique for using hydrogen peroxide and a clearing agent to make an ant’s skin transparent.  With the help of a  confocal laser scanning microscope and fluorescent markers, the result is that you can then see the tiny internal organs in place.

To which I say: Wow.

If you are familiar with the macro photography images of ants heads, like the one I published just the other day, this is like suddenly getting behind the mask, or being invited in to walk around Darth Vader’s brain.

Next thing, we will find ourselves engaging in Socratic dialogues with ants.

Here’s another one, of a leafcutter ant, front view left, side view right:


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The Secret Megalopolis of the Ants

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 23, 2013

They move 40 tons of soil, one ant-load at a time, to excavate a city state 50 meters across and 8 meters deep:

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Behind the Scenes at The Truman Show for Ants

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 18, 2013


My new post for TakePart:


Even in the arcane world of ant behavior, the right headline can make all the difference. Back in May, Danielle Mersch and her colleagues at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland published an article in Science.They got very little attention for it, perhaps because the headline wasn’t exactly an attention-grabber: “Tracking Individuals Shows Spatial Fidelity Is a Key Regulator of Ant Social Organization.”

But a new article, just published in Current Biology, gives Mersch’s work the spin it clearly deserves. Under the headline “Animal Behavior: The Truman Show for Ants,” the authors describe how the system Mersch’s team devised to track the second-by-second movements of every individual in an ant colony resembles the popular 1998 film starring Jim Carrey. In that film, Truman Burbank, played by Carrey, belatedly discovers that his entire life has been a reality show produced and managed for broadcast.

At Mersch’s laboratory in Lausanne, the lives being recorded take place in a row of Styrofoam boxes, each about the size of a bar refrigerator, lined up on a counter. A computer precisely controls temperature and humidity inside each box, where a colony of about 150 carpenter ants (Camponotus fellah) goes back and forth between daytime and nighttime compartments. Mersch has 11 separate colonies under watch at the moment. Like Truman before he wakes up, the ants are apparently oblivious that the outside world is looking in, though every ant carries a barcode-like placard on its back, for automated identification, and an overhead camera … to read the rest of this post click here.


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Worn Does Not Mean Worthless

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 10, 2010

No longer sharpest tool in shed

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”  So says Proverbs 6:6-8.  And today’s lesson, my brothers and sisters of the Boom Baby Generation, comes from leafcutter ants, those beautiful creatures who parade through the rainforest with leaf fragments held up over their heads like placards.

Apparently, a lifetime of cutting up leaves can make an ant’s mandibles dull.  But they don’t simply give up, go back to the nest, and rock out their days on the front porch.  (Possibly their sister ants with mandibles still sharp would cut them up and cart the little pieces out to the nearest ant graveyard)

Instead, they switch to different jobs for which their other skills are still quite adequate.

Here’s the press release (and, damn, I wish Read the rest of this entry »

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