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In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we are all worried about the residents of Houston and the Galveston Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and flooding are a deadly serious matter and my heart goes out to everyone dealing with loss or damage caused by the disaster. As Houston residents and first responders worked together to survive and mitigate the floodwaters with boats, pumps, sandbags, and evacuations, they were treated to the (horrible) spectacle of a very different group of social animals responding to the crisis with a different group strategy.

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Red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are a tough species of stinging fire ants from South America. Like humankind they are invasive generalists which can survive anything and have quickly spread worldwide because of their hardy resilience and various ingenious group strategies. I have been meaning to blog about them because they are a sort of alien red mirror of humanity (and I have been trying to get back to writing about superorganisms and the question of what constitutes an organism anyway). Because of the hurricane, the fire ants have injected themselves into the news cycle, so I am going to mention their flood strategy now and we can return to write about their other interesting behaviors.
Fire ant bodies are waxy and light. They float! But they would all be drowned or swept apart in a serious flooding event (and a single ant separated from the group is effectively dead). Thus when the fire ants sense rising waters they group together in a ball and tightly cling to each other. These living rafts of clamped together ants can float for many days.
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If you are in a flooded area and a ball of furious stinging ants floats by you, entomologists and fire ant experts recommend that you not molest it. Like Voltron, the ants can break apart into autonomous fighting units before reforming. Ants do not breathe like people and they drown sort of gradually. We will leave the ants alone and concentrate on human group strategies for getting through crises.

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There is a scene in The Spy Who Loved Me where James Bond is impersonating a marine biologist (with the fake name “Robert Sterling”!) in order to infiltrate the underwater lair of a sinister supervillain.  Bond has brought all sorts of potentially dangerous luggage, and is dressed in high 70’s fashion…and also happens to be traveling with Barbara Bach, so the villain is a bit suspicious about this new scientist.  “What fish is that?” he quizzes Bond, pointing out the huge undersea window at a magnificent fish covered in poisonous red spines.

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Without hesitation, Bond correctly replies “Pterois Volitans” a red lionfish.  It was a scene that delighted the 12-year old me, since I was a saltwater aquarium enthusiast and, like “Robert Sterling” I knew the Latin name for that fish too.  It was hard not to imagine successfully infiltrating an underwater lair with a beautiful Soviet agent/Ringo Starr’s wife (although that never did end up happening to my 12 year old self).  Also…what was this Indo-Pacific fish doing in Sardinia?

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But The Spy Who Loved Me turned out to be ahead of its time (indeed, in retrospect, the supervillain’s plot to save the oceans from human destruction seems far-sighted too).  Lionfish are clever and aggressive predators which hunt in groups (schools?, prides?, packs?). They are covered in poisonous spines which give pause even to human fishermen with our lines, hooks, poison, and spears. And the beautiful aggressive fish are taking over.  Invasive lionfish escaped from home aquariums and became, uh, feral (is any of this language correct?) and they are now a huge problem in warm seas and oceans around the world.  Lionfish rapidly eat through the delicate tropical fish which form the backbone of reef ecosystems and leave the habitats dead and dying (although climate-change, acidification, and overfishing are probably exacerbating their deadly impact).  As the oceans warm, the fish (which are a sort of scorpionfish) are expanding their territory into what were once temperate oceans.

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However, all is not hopeless.  This article began with ridiculous James Bond stuff and then got serious, but now there is a potential solution to the lionfish problem taken directly from a Bond villain’s playbook.  Concerned marine biologists have teamed up with engineers to build autonomous predatory underwater robots to rid the Caribbean of invasive lionfish. These creepy robots swim through the oceans until they finds a red lionfish. The death machine then sidles up around the invader and zaps it with a mighty jolt of electricity.

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Lionfish are largely unafraid of predators (although some sharks, triggerfish are able to despine them and some groupers and sharks can apparently gulp them down).  I wonder if they will wise up to sinister predatory robots that appear from nowhere.  Will the robots curtail the problem, or will the lionfish adapt around tehm too? Or will none of this even happen?  Keep your eyes peeled to find out the rest of this story as it evolves.

Ugly-PigeonAs a city dweller, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of pigeons (Columbidae) solely as the rock doves (Columba livia) which are the familiar gray and iridescent birds. Rock Doves originated in North Africa, Central Asia, and Europe.  Humans domesticated these birds in antiquity and carried them everywhere during the age of exploration and colonization.  Like the hero of a dystopian novel, the rock dove then cast off its oppressors (manipulative giant primates who were selectively breeding it to kill it and eat it!) and escaped to freedom and worldwide success.  However the rock dove is not the only pigeon—not at all—there are over 310 species in this family.  They are found everywhere on land except for the polar regions.  Some pigeons are analogous to clever tropical parrots, whereas others live like songbirds, or jungle fowl, or like grouse.  They live in deserts, jungles, forests, sand dunes, scrubland, cropland, caves…pretty much everywhere except for oceans and tundra.  Humankind has destroyed a few species of pigeons like the passenger pigeon, the giant pigeon (A.K.A. the Dodo), and the Socorro dove–an oddity which is extinct in the wild but lives cradled in the arms of pigeon fanciers like former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, however most doves are tough and resilient.  They thrive in our concrete cities.  They make livings as performers in Vegas! They fly into empty niches and expand to fill them out.

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In the Biblical myth of the flood, the first living thing to find habitable land after the flood subsided was a dove—which actually seems right.  Pigeons’ doughty wings have carried them to places where other varieties of bird never reached or colonized.  This omnipresence–combined with a placid temperament and serene beauty–has made the pigeon into a holy bird in both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian myth. Indeed, the Holy Spirit, the most abstruse god in the Christian trinity (which already has some really weird divinities in it) is generally represented as a dove.

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Depiction of the Christian Holy Spirit as a dove, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica

The secret to the widespread success of the Columbidae however does not merely involve their strong flying ability.  They steal a trick from the mammals’ book: pigeons of both genders nurse their developing nestlings with “crop milk” a nutritious (albeit disgusting) foodstuff made of fluid filled cells sloughed off from the lining of the birds’ crops (a crop, by the way, is a digestive apparatus in birds—a sort of muscular pouch at the top of the gullet).  This strategy means that pigeon parents can feed their offspring even if they can’t immediately find food.  While other baby birds can be wiped out by a temporary food disruption, pigeon families have a safety net.

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Pigeons are not technically fowl—which constitutes the galliformes and anseriformes (and most domesticated birds).   It has been a while since I added a new category of animal to Ferrebeekeeper—perhaps I will add pigeons on the side over there.  They are more interesting than I imagined.

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It’s a bit past the holidays, but I wanted to share the Christmas present I received.  A plush catfish!  Look at how endearing it is.  There are too few catfish toys. This is a blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus), the largest species of north American catfish, which reached sizes of up to 165 cm (65 in) can weigh more than 68 kg (150 lb).  The blue catfish does not just make a captivating plush toy, its success in the competitive real world also illustrates why the siluriformes are such formidable lifeforms.

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Although blue catfish can eat almost anything, they are highly competent and aggressive predators (look at its predatory lines). They are capable of living in fresh fast water or in torpid brackish water and they possess all the myriad astonishing senses of the catfish in order to master their river home.    This is a problem in the real world.  The fish was originally native to the Mississippi river and most of its tributaries, but, aided by the fell hand of man, the blue catfish was introduced into the rivers and estuaries of Virginia where it has swiftly displaced native life.  Because of its ability to survive brackish water, the mighty catfish of the Mississippi has been taking over parts of the Chesapeake Bay.  Hopefully it wasn’t a mistake to bring one into the house.

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Here is a stamp which combines two of my fascinations—catfish and Namibia.  Of course Namibia is a vast and profoundly arid desert—literally a sea of sand—so perhaps you are wondering how a catfish made it onto their postage.  Well the African sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) has a habit of getting everywhere.  It lives throughout most of Africa and the Middle East and (though ill-conceived aquaculture) has established colonies in Vietnam, India, Brazil, and Indonesia.  The catfish is an air breather.  It can sip pure air without the use of its gills, so it can survive in puddles, mud wallows, and even in filthy anaerobic water.  Some of them have moved into the sewers of big cities.  Speaking of big it is arguably Africa’s largest catfish with an average adult length of 1–1.5 m (3 ft 3 inches –4 ft 11 inches).  Even in a dry land like Namibia this tough persistent catfish manages to find watercourses of one sort or another.  Like its close cousin, the walking catfish of Asia, the African sharptooth catfish is a remarkable creature.

African sharptooth catfish (C. gariepinus)

African sharptooth catfish (C. gariepinus)

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

Today’s post is simultaneously inspiring and hopeful and terrifying.   Marine researchers have long been worried about the crown-of-thorns starfish, a monstrous invasive invertebrate which eats coral, doing irreparable damage to the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef).  Human divers have proven ineffective at stemming the onslaught, so conservationists have teamed up with mad scientists to build COTSBOT—an autonomous killing robot submarine which will haunt the reef like a bright yellow uboat/shark.  The COTSBOT will locate and identify crown-of-thorns starfish with robot eyes and then jet over and deliver a lethal injection to the vile invertebrates.  The injectable solution is uniquely poisonous to starfish so any goddamn MFAs doing starfish cosplay projects on the reef do not necessarily need to worry about more than being jabbed and pumped full of weird chemicals by a nightmarish (albeit comic) undersea robot.

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (which I should have mentioned stands for “Crown-OF-Thorns Starfish Robot”) is going to debut in Moreton Bay by Brisbane, a starfish free location where the operators can refine its navigation systems.  If all goes well it will then move on the Great Barrier Reef itself.  The robot (or fleets thereof) will scour an area of the reef killing,  Then human divers will sweep in afterwards to mop up any hardened survivors.   I am extremely impressed at how quickly science managed to make my futuristic ocean sketch come true.  I am also struck with admiration at this high-cost high tech salvation for one of Earth’s most diverse and imperiled ecosystems.  Take that, evil starfish!  You have messed with a reef protected by the fell hand of man.  The alarmist in me can’t help but notice that this is like the first 15 minutes of a horror movie, but, presumably if COTSBOT becomes sentient and decides to protect the reef from ALL dangerous invasive animals we can still pull the plug.  I’m also a bit sorry that humankind has so injured the Giant Triton–nature’s COTSBOT–that the lovely snail can not do the job.

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Different pots of mint

Yesterday’s post was about the ancient Greek myth of how mint came into being. In the gardens and glades of the real world, there are all sorts of mints.  This genus of asterid herbs is known as “Mentha” (linguists believe the name came into Greek from an extinct pre-literate Indo-European tongue). There is peppermint, catnip, and apple mint.  There are spearmints, different pennyroyals, horse mint, and even something ominously called gray mint.  However botanists cannot agree on how many species of mints there actually are.  The different varieties hybridize so frequently (and produce such fecund offspring), that it is unclear where the species lines are.

Flowering mints (Image via Herb Gully)

Flowering mints (Image via Herb Gully)

Mints live around the world in temperate regions across Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America.  They can reproduce asexually or through aggressive fast-growing runners.  Mint flowers are white and purple “false” whorls. Every gardener is aware that mint can swiftly spread from a little pot into a nightmarish tangle of junglelike weeds.  The plant is aggressive and invasive and perennial.  Humankind’s ancient fondness for different mints also have further ensured that it is distributed everywhere.

Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal

Peppermint get its peppery flavor from menthol.  The spiciness of pennyroyal comes from a compound called pulegone, and spearmints get their flavor from a turpenoid known as Lcarvone (which is why spearmint oils can be used as solvents).  These compounds are non-toxic to humans (although there are people who are allergic to mint) but they tend to powerfully effect insects.  Mints can be effective insect repellants or even downright insecticidal.

Spearmint

Spearmint

I said that mint is non-toxic to people (in reasonable amounts) but that doesn’t mean the herb is not psychoactive.  Increasingly it seems likely that mints are effective anti-nauseants and they might also contain potent stimulants. I hedged that sentence somewhat: despite humankind’s long love affair with this ancient herb, it has not been fully studied by science.  Maybe there is a reason mint tea and candy is so popular!

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Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)

Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)

Centaurea cyanus, the European cornflower is an aster which once grew as a weed across Europe (particularly in grain fields). As agriculture has grown more sophisticated (and herbicides more puissant), the cornflower has become uncommon to the point of extinction in its native habitat. Yet the cornflower is far from gone: its bright blue color means that some enthusiasts grow it as an ornamental garden plant. Additionally, in the era before herbicides and intensive agriculture, cornflower seeds frequently contaminated planting seeds—which meant that the cornflower traveled to Australia, the Americas, and Asia where it quickly became invasive.

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The cornflower, also known as the bachelor button or knapweed is the national flower of Germany.  It has long been traditional for unmarried men to wear one in their buttonhole (although I abjure this practice myself).

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665, oil on canvas)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665, oil on canvas)

The most famous aspect of cornflowers is their dazzling bright blue color which inclines very slightly towards purple. For centuries, this color has been a favorite of tailors, decorators, dressmakers, and artists. Cornflower blue is thus a classic traditional name for this brilliant midtone blue: indeed the color was very much a favorite of Vermeer. The name is still very much in use, so it is perfectly correct to imagine some charlatan or fop of the Restoration era donning a cornflower coat of the same color as the bridesmaids will be wearing at your cousins’ wedding next week.

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The Shore Crab or European Green Crab (Carcinus maenas)

The Shore Crab or European Green Crab (Carcinus maenas)

The green crab (Carcinus maenas) is a tiny brownish green crab native to the European shore line along the north-east Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea.  Although it measures only 90 millimetres (3.5 in) across, it is voracious omnivore which feeds on all sorts of small mollusks, tiny arthropods, and worms (not to mention whatever dead flesh it happens across).  Green crabs are great and all, but this blog is not about crustaceans…Why is this little crab showing up here?

A green crab eating a clam

A green crab eating a clam

It turns out that the green crab is one of the most invasive species of our time.  Like the fiendish zebra mussel, the green crab is capable of traveling by boat (either among barnacles or in ballast).  As far back as the age of discovery they were hitching rides around the world on the hulls of wooden ships.  The little crabs seem to have piggy backed into temperate climes along with the British Empire and they have set up ranges in Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and both coasts of North America.  So far this has not been a big problem: for hundreds of years, cold waters and big hungry fish have kept the little crabs from proliferating.  However as humankind moves forward with its dastardly plans to kill off every fish in the ocean (and as ocean temperatures rise) the crabs are beginning to flourish in places where they were once barely holding on by their claws.

Green Crabs Spreading through the World's Oceans...Yikes!

Green Crabs Spreading through the World’s Oceans…Yikes!

Green crabs eat clams and juvenile oysters—so their success is causing hardship for mollusk fishers (while simultaneously removing filter feeders from the ocean).  Along the Mid Atlantic coast of North America, the native blue crab has proven effective at out-competing (or just straight-up eating) the invasive green crabs.  Similarly the rock crabs and Dungeness crabs of the Pacific northwest can hold their own against the invaders, but humans are overfishing these native crabs and allowing the invaders to proliferate (and seafood enthusiasts in America have not developed a taste for the tiny green crabs).

Not exactly a whole seafood platter...

Not exactly a whole seafood platter…

Will the warming of the oceans cause blue crabs to spread northward to defeat the invaders?  Will humankind stop killing every fish in the ocean so that the green crabs are eaten by sea bass?   Will we introduce a new species which preys on the green crabs (but brings its own problems)?  Only time will tell, but already coastal Maine is being swept by a tide of little green claws (and delicious east coast oysters are becoming more expensive and more rare).

"Dead or Alive", people...

“Dead or Alive”, people…

Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Our nation is being invaded!  The intruders number in the millions.  They are wiping out entire ecosystems, destroying electronics, and setting fires.  Fortunately the invading species, Nylanderia fulva, is rather small:  each individual measures only 3.2 mm (.12 inches).  In 2002 the ants arrived on America’s Gulf Coast from Argentina or Brazil where they live naturally. These ants are called Nylanderia fulva because of their brownish yellow fulvous color, but in America they are more commonly known as crazy ants (thanks to their erratic and non-linear walking patterns) or Rasberry ants—in honor of Tom Rasberry a Texas exterminator who discovered them in Texas.

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The crazy ants have spread extensively in Texas and Florida and they have footholds in Mississippi and Louisiana.  They are highly successful foragers and hunters of small arthropods and, like some other ants, they farm aphids (!).  Nylanderia fulva is capable of forming extremely large hives with multiple queens—which gives them surprising immunity from many common American insecticides and ant-killing chemicals.  They are out-competing native fire ants and changing the micro-fauna of the areas where they are flourishing.

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For whatever reason, crazy ants are attracted to electronics.  Because of their small size, they climb inside all sorts of switches, circuit boxes, and electric gizmos.  If an ant stumbles into a transistor and dies, its corpse emits a chemical which causes fellow hive members to rush to the scene (this is an evolutionary strategy for fending off attackers).  Unfortunately, the reinforcement ants are themselves electrocuted which causes a grim feedback scenario.  These ant death spirals can cause electronics to become disabled, or switch permanently on/off, or just catch fire (since they are jam packed with electrified ant corpses).

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