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The Fortingall Yew

The Fortingall Yew

It’s 2015 and anything is possible these days, but Ferrebeekeeper was still surprised to see a stolid old friend showcased in the international media for changing gender!  A while ago (for us humans) I blogged about The Fortingall yew, which may be more than 5000 years old (and may also be Great Britain’s oldest living thing).  The Fortingall yew is a male and has been so for several millennia.  However, this year the ancient tree started to produce berries from a limb near its crown.  Yews tend to be male or female, though it is not entirely unheard of for male conifers to have a female branch.  Of course the Fortingall Yew predates Christianity (and possibly the pyramids)…and it has returned from the dead, so a bit of gender bending may not be so noteworthy considering its astonishing nature.  Hopefully the berries will be fertile, I would like the tree to have some known offspring (although probably most of the yews in Great Britain are already descendants if it has been around for so long).

The Fortingall Yew then and now: partying with Victorian dandies in 1822 on the left, and switching gender at present time on the right

The Fortingall Yew then and now: partying with Victorian dandies in 1822 on the left, and switching gender at present time on the right

number-4It’s weird down there at ground level. We humans go around building Dairy Queens, discarding old credit cards, and prospecting for fossil fuels when beneath us, at grass level, strange alien life forms share our world all but unbeknownst to us. The fourth top post of all time illustrates this fact by featuring a tiny animal which is simultaneously endearing and frightening. The velvet ant is not an ant at all—it is a wasp from the family Mutillidae (which has more than 3000 species worldwide). Mutillidae wasps are furry and colorful—like cute little Jim Henson puppets with extra eyes—but they pack a ferocious wallop in their stingers. Female velvet ants are rated a ferocious 3.0 out of 4 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index (a subjective scale which quantifies the agony caused by the stings from Hymenopterans). Male ants have no sting although they do have wings and thus look more wasplike.

 

Panda Ant - (Mutillidae) photo from rikiblundell

Panda Ant – (Mutillidae) photo from rikiblundell

The velvet ant post is notable for being the most-commented on Ferrebeekeeper post of all time. Nearly 70 readers have chimed in with anecdotes about running across the furry little bugs. They seem to be quite prolific in the American South and Southwest (goodness help us). Some of the comments were quite amazing. Adam Riley told us about a terrible childhood experience writing, “I was 6 or 7 years old, playing in the sand of our driveway in S.E. Alabama, when I encountered a velvet ant. I tried to smash it with my hand to painful consequences. Aside from breaking my arm, that is still the most memorable pain I’ve experienced to date. The ‘cow ant,’ as my mom referred to it, was fairly indestructible; trying to crush one was like trying to crush a pebble.”

 

Unknown female Mutillidae wasp (photo by jaiprox)

Unknown female Mutillidae wasp (photo by jaiprox)

Reader Erica captured one and then became trapped in a riding-the-tiger type predicament. She wrote, “I was stung by one on a hiking trip and caught it in a bottle just in case it was poisonous. I have made a little habit for her and put a little drip of sugar water. I don’t want to release her in the city nor do I have the heart to kill such a beautiful exotic creature.”

Perhaps most dramatically of all, Kathy became involved in a protracted battle with a velvet ant. Industrial poisons and specialized weapons were barely sufficient to grant her (eventual) victory. Her story reads like Sci-Fi horror: “They are in my yard in Ohio…actually took video of it after I had hit it four times with fly swatter and sprayed it two times with wasp spray it still lived for the next day just kept curling its body and jabbing its stinger out which reached over its head, freaked me out…….! Hope my kids don’t get stung playing outside.”

Yeesh! Be careful out there people! And keep commenting and writing your stories. I have made a resolution to respond more to comments and to post quotations from the best ones!

venussymbolThe astronomical symbol for the planet Venus, a circle with an attached dorsal cross, is the same symbol which is used in biology to represent the female gender.  With the exception of Mother Earth (which understandably goes by many names), Venus is the only planet in this solar system named after a goddess.  Even in other languages and cultures, Venus is often imagined as feminine: to the Persians she was Anahita; the Babylonians called her Ishtar or Inanna; and the Australian Aborigines called her Barnumbirr (we will say nothing about the Theosophists because everything is much better that way).

venus-goddess-of-loveConsidering the long association between Venus and goddesses, it is appropriate that international astronomic convention asserts that surface features of Venus should be named after women (or mythological women).  Only a handful of features on the planet have male names (most notably the Maxwell Montes which are named after James Clerk Maxwell) and these masculine oddballs were grandfathered (grandmothered?) in before the female naming convention was adopted.  Hopefully the future floating cities of Venus will also sport lovely female names as well…

-venus-b

 

Statue of an Apsara Dancing(Unknown artist, Uttar Pradesh, India, Early 12th century)

In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology a group of beautiful & ethereal female spirits inhabit the skies.  These elegant beings are known as apsaras.  They are lesser goddesses of water and clouds.  In classical Indian literature apsaras are often portrayed dancing seductively in the courts of the gods or married to ganharvas—nature spirits who play celestial music for the gods. Both groups of entities are particularly connected with the court of Indra, the god of the skies and storm, and also king of the gods (although that title is less absolute in Hinduism than in other cosmologies).

Rambha Apsara (Kishan Soni, 2012, oil on canvas)

In many myths, apsaras are cast as supporting characters.  They are roughly analogous to nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology or angels in Abrahamic myths.  Indra constantly felt threatened by great ascetics who amassed titanic spiritual and magical power through physical austerity.  One of his favorite ways of dealing with these powerful yogis was to send apsaras to seduce them—which is why many heroes of Indian myth have a sexy apsara as a mother and a crazed hermit as a father!  In addition to being masterful dancers apsaras could alter their form at will (although I can’t think of any story where they were anything other than beautiful).  They also ruled over the vicissitudes of gaming and gambling.

The apsara Menaka seduces the sage Viswamitra

Apsaras can be recognized because of their tiny waists and their pronounced feminine attributes.  Usually they are pictured dancing gracefully, clad (or partially clad) in lovely silk skirts and bedecked with gold jewelry and precious gems.  Often they are gamboling in the skies or playing in the water.  Additionally apsaras tend to be crowned with gorgeous ornate headdresses.

Apsara (stone relief carving at Angkor Wat)

Sculptures of apsaras are frequently a principle component of classical Indian temples and the gorgeous undulating female forms remain a mainstay of Indian art.  These celestial dancers were also particularly esteemed in Southeast Asia. Classical art and architecture from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos frequently features the lovely spirits.  Recently a controversy has broken out in the Cambodian community involving contemporary paintings of apsaras which some critics deem too racy for refined tastes.  Ascetics beware!

 

A female velvet ant (mutillidae wasp)

Velvet ants (Mutillidae) are not actually ants at all—the insects are classified as wasps even though female velvet ants do not have wings and appear to be tiny furry colorful ants. The Mutillidae family of wasps—which is made up of more than 3000 species– illustrates how closely wasps, bees, and ants are actually related.   Male velvet ants look nothing like the females but are much larger winged creatures resembling other wasps.  So great is the sexual dimorphism between the genders that it took entomologists a tremendously long time to pair the females with the males, and in many species the connection has still not been made by science.  The genders do however both share a ridged structure called a stridulitrum, which can be rubbed or struck to produce chirps and squeaks for communication.

Male velvet ant (mutillidae wasp)

Female velvet ants are notable not just for their colorful fur but for their tremendously powerful sting which is so painful that they are nicknamed “cow killers.”  Male velvet ants look like wasps but do not sting.  The exoskeletons of velvet ants are tremendously hard to such an extent that some entomologists have reportedly found it difficult to drive pins through specimens.  The dense hard coating helps the females invade the underground burrows of larger bees and wasps which the velvet ants sting and lay eggs on.  When the velvet ant larvae hatch they feed on the paralyzed victims before metamorphosing into adult form and venturing into the world.

Blue velvet ant (female)

Velvet ants are found in warmer parts of the world particularly deserts.  The majority of species are red and black but a variety of other colors are known including blue, gold, orange, and white.  Unlike the social ants and termites, velvet ants are generally solitary, coming together only to reproduce with their strangely alien mates.

Regular readers know how much I esteem turkeys.  Unfortunately I worry that my writings are not winning additional admirers for these astonishing birds.  It is time to play a trump card and reveal one of the great bizarre strengths of turkeys.  They are capable of virgin birth.

A New Mexico Whiptail (Aspidoscelis neomexicana). All New Mexico Whiptails are female. The entire species reproduces by parthenogenesis.

Before you spring up in alarm and start shouting, allow me to present a miniature biology lesson. Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction. Some female organisms are capable of producing an ovum which develops into a new individual without being fertilized by a male gamete.  In these cases, the mother contributes her genetic material to the offspring.  Although natural parthenogenesis is frequently observed in rotifers, insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and flatworms, this method of reproduction is much less common among vertebrates. However a few species of fish, amphibians, and reptiles are known to reproduce via parthenogenesis (movie-goers may recall that this happened to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.)  The turkey is very unusual in being a bird which can reproduce through this means (or at least we think it is unusual—perhaps parthenogenesis is more common among birds then we realize but we just don’t know about it except in settings like farms where it becomes obvious). Chickens can also produce self-fertilized eggs but they almost never develop beyond embryonic stages, whereas female turkeys can and frequently do produce living offspring which lack fathers.

This diagram from the BBC actually explains shark parthenogenesis but you get the idea.

Parthenogenesis occurs in turkeys through the doubling of haploid cells.  Biologists have discovered that the rate at which this occurs can be increased by selective breeding. Poults produced by parthenogenesis are capable of growing into healthy viable toms indistinguishable from toms with more traditional parentage.  You will note that I wrote “toms”—all turkeys conceived via parthenogenesis were created from doubled haploids and are are homogametic. Consequently they are all all male. (This will leave mammal enthusiasts scratching their heads–since female mammals are homogametic and have two x chromosomes. However for birds and for some reptiles, males have two Z chromosomes and thus are the homogametic sex. In such species, females have one Z and one W chromosome and are the heterogametic sex.)

Mammals do not naturally utilize parthenogenesis as a method of reproduction. Certain portions of mammalian genes consist of imprinted regions where portions of genetic data from one parent or the other are inactivated. Mammals born of parthenogenesis must therefore overcome the developmental abnormalities caused by having two sets of maternally imprinted genes.  In normal circumstances this is impossible and embryos created by parthenogenesis are spontaneously rejected from the womb. Biology researchers have now found ways to surmount such obstacles and a fatherless female mouse was successfully created in Tokyo in 2004. With genetic tinkering, human parthenogenesis is also biologically feasible. Before his research was discredited and he was dismissed from his position, the South Korean (mad?) scientist Hwang Woo-Suk unknowingly created human embryos via parthenogenesis. To quote a news article by Chris Williams, “In the course of research, which culminated with false claims that stem cells had been extracted from a cloned human embryo, Hwang’s team succeeded in extracting cells from eggs that had undergone parthenogenesis… The ability to extract embryonic stem cells produced by parthenogenesis means they will be genetically identical to the egg donor. The upshot is a supply of therapeutic cells for women which won’t be rejected by their immune system, without the need for cloning.”

All of which is fascinating to biology researchers (and those who would seek greatly prolonged life via biogenetic technologies), however it seems that in nature, the turkey is the most complicated creature capable of virgin birth.

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