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We are swiftly coming up to the United States election and Ferrebeekeeper needs to endorse a candidate. You can probably already guess whether I will endorse the competent and hard-working patriot (the one who is admittedly very ambitious and bit sloppy with finicky data protocols) or the unhinged con-artist who is not only an ignoramus, a bully, and a bigot, but poses an existential threat to the republic itself. However, before we get around to making this difficult choice (and, maybe…finally reaching an end to this ghastly and divisive national contest) we need to think about primatology.

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Specifically there was an experiment conducted by primatologist Frans de Waal with some capuchin monkeys to understand social behavior and social cognition in primate groups.  In the experiment, the capuchins (who are exceedingly bright characters) were asked to do a small task in exchange for a food reward while the other monkeys watched the exchange.  Some monkeys were given grapes…which capuchins love.  Others were given little slivers of cucumber (a far less valuable treat) for completing the same task.

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Not surprisingly, monkeys who watched a different monkey do the same task for a much better reward flew into a rage. They hurled their cucumber away and banged on their plexiglass enclosures and shook their little bars and sulked.

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Now, a tiny sliver of cucumber is not a valueless thing for a monkey who spends all day being tortured by scientists and fed bland monkey chow. Probably the rational thing to do would be to take the cucumber and kiss the cruel scientists’ hand and call it a day (then quietly wait for a chance to rise up, bite some faces off, and enslave Charlton Heston).

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But if you were a monkey and reacted with apparent docility to unfair treatment, who knows how you would be taken advantage of next? It wouldn’t just be primatologists who took advantage of you, soon enough your fellow monkeys would too.

What is truly important to social animals is status: this intangible commodity is fungible and it is pegged to a highly complex and immediate relative framework. A cucumber slice, though fine in its own right confers less status than a prestigious grape.  To throw it away and freak out makes sense to capuchin monkeys because larger issues are on the line (even if they are apparently hurting themselves in the short term).  Spite matters for monkeys: it is one way that monkeys can mess with more powerful entities and protest the unfair allocation of resources and rewards.

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Again and again the question arises among the people I know in New York of how anyone could be taken in by an illiterate orange charlatan with a pronounced tendency to molest woman, steal from workers, and cheat on taxes.   Maybe some people truly believe in Donald Trump, but I believe for a larger number of people in the middle of the country he is neither the grape nor the cucumber: Trump is the act of throwing the cucumber away.  High status monkeys should take note and make some immediate changes, but I suspect they will only hide their equities in the Cayman Islands and buy bigger Bentleys. Primates are not great at solving social hierarchy problems without lots of shrieking, biting, and shit-throwing.

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Agriculture is almost unknown in the natural world. Human beings are the only vertebrates known to grow crops or keep livestock (with the possible exception of damselfish which carefully tend little algae gardens).  And yet we were not the first animals to invent the concept.  Ants have farmed fungi within their tunnels for tens of millions of years.  Ants also keep aphids in captivity in order to “milk” them of sugary secretions–or to eat them outright.  It is possible that beetles, termite, or snails came up with the concept first, but most evidence points to ants as the first farmers.

An Ant Milking Aphids

Ants do not have a shabby operation either. Leaf cutter ants form the largest and most complicated animal societies known on Earth (other than our own) and a single colony can have over 8 million individuals.  Leaf cutters are an ideal example of how adept ants are at farming fungi.  Four different castes of worker ants work together to bring back leaf fragments and integrate them into huge fungal gardens. Different species of leafcutters cultivate different fungi from the Lepiotaceae family.  Certain bacteria with antifungicidal and antibacterial properties grow within the metapleural glands of the ants.  The worker ants use these bacteria to “prune and weed” dangerous or unproductive organisms out of their gardens.  Older (more expendable) worker ants carry waste products from the hive to a waste pile where they stir the hive wastes together to aid in decomposition.  The waste-management job brings the danger of fungal or bacterial contamination and contaminated ants are exiled to certain death in order to keep the gardens safe.  Additionally dead ants from within the hive are carefully placed around the waste pile so as to protect the hive from their decomposition.

Leaf Cutter Ants at the Cameron Currie Lab arrange cut-up leaves into their fungal garden.

According to geneticists who study the rates of mutation within the various fungal cultivars, ants began their farm relationship with fungi around 50 million years ago in the warm Eocene epoch (an era which saw many of the critical relationships in modern ecosystems begin).

 

Digital Cut-away of an underground leaf-cutter nest

Scientists are also beginning to understand the means by which ants herd their little flocks of aphids.  The aphids are smaller insects which feed on the saps and juices of plants (which they suck out by means of specialized mouthparts called stylets).  The ants prevent the aphids by flying away by tearing off their wings.  The feet of the ants produce chemicals which tranquilize and subdue the aphids and keep them from escaping the “pastures” near the ant colonies.  It is believed that aphids also derive certain benefits from this arrangement since the aggressive ants protect them from many of their natural predators.

An Ant with a “herd” of Aphids

For years naysayers belittled the farming achievements of ants suggesting they were little more than symbiotic arrangements.  However as entomologists study the ants more carefully they increasingly discover just how complicated and sophisticated those relationships are (involving as they do numerous symbiotic relationships with bacteria in order to produce the chemicals necessary for agricultural control).  Additionally, what are humankind’s relationships with our crops and animals if not huge harrowing examples of symbiosis?

A Smilodon fends off the vulture-like Teratornis at what would later be called the Rancho La Brea tar pits, situated in Los Angeles, California (Painting by Charles R. Knight)

Lately this blog has been fixated on magnificent saber-toothed mammals.  We have featured the extinct saber-toothed whale, a saber-toothed marsupial predator, the little saber-toothed deer, and even the familiar walrus (in reality, a giant saber-toothed seal), but we realize that everyone has really been looking forward to the most famous saber-toothed animal of them all, Smilodon, the saber toothed cat.  Smilodon was actually a genus of several large cats, the biggest of which, Smilodon populator, weighed 360 to 470 kg (790 to 1,000 lb) and was larger than modern tigers or lions. In fact Smilodon species are sometimes known as “saber toothed tigers” or “saber toothed lions,” however taxonomists tell us such names are off the mark since the Smilodons belonged to the extinct Machairodontinae genus of felines rather than the familiar Panthera genus of big cats so familiar today.

About two and a half million years ago, Smilodon evolved in North America from an earlier genus of saber toothed cat Megantereon (there were a lot of other earlier genera of saber-toothed cats, not to mention even more genera of saber toothed carnivores which were not exactly felines—the whole story is complicated).  During the Great American Interchange with South America the big predators invaded South America at the same time armadillos were making their way up into North America.  Yikes, that’s a pretty lopsided exchange.

In addition to long razor sharp teeth, Smilodons possessed immense neck and forelimb muscles. Using the muscles of their front torso they would pull down and pin the great grazing metafauna of the American plains.  Prey animals almost certainly included bison, tapirs, deer, American camels, and ground sloths. Additionally Smilodons might have opportunistically killed juvenile mastodons and mammoths. To dispatch such large prey Smilodons employed their fearsome canine teeth with which they bit through the prone creatures’ necks.

Smilodon fatalis (reconstruction/specimen at the Page Museum)

Paleontologists have collected a great deal of fossil evidence concerning Smilodons, which suggest that the big cats were sophisticates social predators like today’s lions or wolves.  The number and nature of saber-toothed cat fossils recovered from tar pits suggests that Smilodon prides would converge together on prey animals caught in the petrochemical ooze–only to become trapped themselves.  Also some fossilized smilodons have shown evidence of badly broken bones healing—a rarity in carnivores which is generally only possible for pack/pride animals which can (sometimes) rely on a support network.

Thanks to their size, ferocious appearance, and highly characteristic teeth, Smilodons have a special place in human culture to the extent that few other extinct animals do.  The Flintstones had a pet smilodon named “Baby Puss” which evicted Fred from his house in the title sequence and the moral struggles of Diego the saber tooth constituted the moral hook of “Ice Age” a cartoon movie. Ironically for all of our apparent fondness for the great cats, it seems that human migration into the Americas may have been the downfall of the great cats (which vanished 10,000 years ago) but whether their extinction was the result of humans overhunting their prey, shifting climate, or some other factor remains an open question.

Smilodon by Knight

An Iridescent Wasp on a Linen Tablecloth

Today I would like to start a brand new animal category concerning the most gifted of the social insects, the superorder Hymenoptera, which consists of wasps, bees, ants and sawflies (along with some other oddballs which are less frequently mentioned).  Hymenoptera are arguably among the most successful creatures on the planet.  Their behavior can be almost embarrassingly humanlike and they are famous for building elaborate constructions, going to war, taking slaves, farming fungi, and crafting rigid city-like social hierarchies. However, of all life forms on earth, the hymenoptera are some of the most vividly alien: cuttlefish do seem downright cuddly when compared to the horrifying digger wasps.   A sociologist could happily draw parallels between a bee hive and a city until he looked at the details of bee reproduction, at which point he would probably break down and weep.

The Hymenoptera are not as ancient as either the mollusks or the mammals (if it is fair to compare an order with a phylum or a class).  They originated in the Triassic and did not develop the successful social organization which is now such a defining feature until the late Cretaceous.   The first hymenopterans were the xylidae, a family of sawflies with a minimal presence on earth today but with a long pedigree. These first sawflies fed on the pollen and buds of the conifer stands beneath which the first dinosaurs developed (and under the roots of which the first mammals cowered).  The rise of the flowering plants in the Cretaceous led to a leap-forward for these pollen-eaters: complex flowers then evolved in tandem with the hymenopterans. It was also during the Cretaceous that the ants and termites split from the vespoid wasps.  The earliest honey bees of the familiar genus Apis evolved at the end of the Eocene bt they were preceded by all sorts of hymenopteran pollinators.

A Sawfly Fossil (Hymenoptera: Symphyta)

I mentioned above that, for all of their familiarity to us, the Hymenoptera are disturbingly alien.  In fact as I have been writing this comparatively tame post, a dreadful sense of formication has stolen over me and I find myself brushing phantom ants from my limbs and feeling the terrible pang of yellowjacket stings from childhood.  The hymenoptera are frequently the basis of the extraterrestrial enemies in science fiction.  Although people are occasionally stung to death by wasps or ripped apart from within by driver ants, it is something larger and less tangible which makes the hymenoptera such reliable villains. I have watched the soldier bees snip the wings off of wasps trying to invade my grandfather’s bee hive and then toss the invaders’ writhing bodies from the painted ledge—all while a river of worker bees went out and came back laden with pollen.  There is an alarming touch of civilization to these social insects: a hint that they are utilizing the same kinds of organization and communication which have made humans such a success.  And, in fact, the social insects are a huge success—ants alone are estimated to constitute a substantial portion of the animal biomass of earth (to say nothing of termites, bees, wasps and the rest).

Yellow Jackets on a Coke Can (photo by the fearless Alan Cressler)

Of course this success has broad ramifications. The hymenoptera are everywhere in nature and they also play a huge part of human culture. Indeed the very name of this blog is a play on words between my surname and the noble art of aviculture.  Without the bees, we would not have much in the way of fruit or vegetables.  Not only would this be a disaster for human farming—just contemplate how many other creatures rely on those fruit!  Similarly the ants bulwark an entire portion of the ecosystem by scavenging the tidbits out of fields and forests.  Writing about the hymenoptera may be an itchy, antsy business but it is a well-merited study.  This group of insects is pivotal to life on dry-land as we know it.  The biblical promised land was one of milk and honey.  There would be no milk without mammals, but there would be no honey (and precious few mammals) without the hymenoptera.

A beekeeper completely covered with swarming honey bees in a “bee man” cantest in China

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