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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

Today (February 3rd, 2011) is the first day of the Chinese year 4709, the year of the metal rabbit. You should go have some dumplings and rice wine and then light a bunch of firecrackers and dance with a giant dragon! If you have any business in China, you should relax—nothing is getting done there for nearly a fortnight.  This is by far the biggest and most important holiday of the year.  For two weeks, the ceaseless seething all-consuming industry of rising China comes to a stop.  Even the meanest factory drudges take time off to leave the manufacturing cities and travel back to the country for some well-earned time with family and loved ones.  When you celebrate the year of the rabbit you will be doing so with more than a billion souls.

The Year of the Metal Rabbit

The rabbit is a mythological figure of great standing in the Chinese pantheon.  The divine jade rabbit is a sage and a potion master capable of mixing the elixer of immortality.  He dwells on the moon with the beautiful and troubling moon goddess Chang’e, but every once in a while he scampers down to earth to perform good deeds and instruct worthwhile students.  In the middle ages he reputedly saved the inhabitants of Beijing from a plague!

The Jade Rabbit mixes potions in front of his mansion on the moon.

According to astrologers and geomancers the year of the rabbit is traditionally associated with the family and the homestead. It is a good time for artistic pursuits, diplomatic missions, and for shoring up the peace (which always needs to be shored up after a dramatic and dangerous  tiger year).   People born in the Year of the Rabbit are ambitious and have excellent taste and fashion sense.  They are frequently financially lucky: their ability to sense danger and flee from it gives them an edge in business.  It goes without saying that they are cautious and careful, never yielding to impulse.  Well—not never–although outwardly reserved, rabbits have their own private life.  You can look to the animal kingdom for instruction…

Speaking of the animal kingdom, this week we are celebrating Furry Herbivore Week here at Ferrebeekeeper (I made the text red since it’s not a real thing), and the rabbit has a place of honor. Few animals are more universally known and more universally successful. The family Leporidae consists of over 50 species of rabbits and hares and, together with the family Ochotonidae (the pikas), constitutes the order Lagomorpha.  But whereas pikas have a limited range, rabbits and hares are found worldwide except for Antarctica (and possibly Manhattan).  The Encyclopedia of Mammals eloquently describes the basic leporidae design:

Leporids are small to moderately sized mammals, adapted for rapid movement. They have long hind legs, with four toes on each foot, and shorter fore legs, with five toes each. The soles of their feet are hairy, to improve grip while running, and they have strong claws on all of their toes. Leporids also have distinctive, elongated and mobile ears, and they have an excellent sense of hearing. Their eyes are large, and their night vision is good, reflecting their primarily nocturnal or crepuscular mode of living.

Together with a quick and fecund reproductive cycle and a taste for readily available vegetation, this is a winning design.  Few families of mammal are more bountiful.  When rabbits and hares were introduced to the continent of Australia, they overran it completely.  Armies of bunnies have subsequently wrecked havoc on the lives of marsupial herbivores with which they compete. It is one of the most disastrous stories of invasive animals in history.

But to the rabbits it was a story of success.  It always is.  Individual rabbit stories end with jaws or talons or steel snares, but the overall story is always a running leaping thriving tale of victory.  You shouldn’t look at one rabbit or hare, you should look at them all.  When you do you will be amazed by the luck and resiliency and beauty of the leporids.  I hope you think about them sometimes as you embark on your own happy and successful year of the rabbit!

The Short-Beaked Echidna (Source: M McKelvey/P Rismiller/)

Last year featured an in-depth examination of Echidna, the terrifying “mother of monsters” from Greek mythology.  To start this year on a glorious high note, here is an essay concerning the actual echidnas (Tachyglossidae), a family of mammals from Australia and New Guinea.  The echidnas were much wronged when explorers named them after a hellish demigoddess.  Although I have never met—or even seen—a living echidna, they are one of my favorite creatures for many reasons.  Combining a gentle temperament with fascinatingly alien intelligence, the echidna is a delightful animal whose taxonomical oddity reveals the strange paths of fate which life takes over great expanses of time.

Along with the charismatic platypus, the echidna is the last of the egg-laying monotremes.  Monotremes are a very different sort of mammal than the other two major divisions of mammals, the eutheria and the metatheria.  The teeming eutheria (familiar mammals like shrews, manatees, picas, goats, and humans) nourish their fetal young by means of a placenta.  The ancient metatheria (marsupials) sustain their developing young in a special pouch.  The monotremes predate both groups and give evidence of mammals’ origins.  Genetic studies suggest that the monotremes originated from some reptile-like ancestor about 220 million years ago.  The long and tangled family history of the mammals and their antecedents will have to wait for another post–suffice to say that monotremes have been here for an extraordinarily long time.  The surviving monotremes, however, are not primitive atavists, but extraordinarily advanced descendants of those ancient progenitor mammals.  They have evolved and survived in varying fashions over the long eons.  Over those millions and millions of years, the echidna developed a very interesting brain.

Echidnas have the largest neocortex relative to bodymass of any creature.  The neocortex (which Hercule Poirot always creepily referred to as “the little grey cells”) is involved in higher brain functions such as spacial cognition, logic, and problem solving.  This special tool has taken the echidna far: like humans, and unlike almost all other creatures, echidnas live in very diverse habitats.  Actually it is the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) which lives in different habitats—the other two extant species live in tropical New Guinea and are little known to science.  Although all three species seem to share most traits, I am really writing solely about Tachyglossus aculeatus which ranges from the hot dry desert scrub, to the tropical rainforest, to the coast, to the cold snows of the Australian Alps (where they can lower their body temperature a few degrees above freezing and hibernate).  Echidnas live on termites and ants, omnipresent social insects which are evolutionary winners in their own right.  Echidnas dig up these insects with powerful razor claws and gobble them down using a long sticky tongue which zips in and out of a toothless tube-like mouth.  Echidnas are not known to fight each other or other animals.  In the great evolutionary battle they are pacifists (provided you are not an ant or termite) and if approached aggressively they will curl into a ball and trust their sharp spine-like hairs to keep them safe.  They are also phenomenal burrowers and can quickly tunnel down through anything other than solid stone.

An orphaned puggle being handraised.

Because of their cleverness, relatively little is known about echidnas.  They are difficult to capture since they disdain baits and can figure out most traps.  Similarly, in zoos, echidnas have proven extremely gifted at escape.  Their mating habits are largely mysterious to us but seem to involve non-confrontational competition.  The female echidna is followed for an extended period of time by a train of interested males.  In response to an unknown signal, the male echidnas begin frantically digging, trying to nudge one another out of the way.  Just how the victor emerges from this competition is unknown, but one the female has chosen, the other males walk away with no obvious rancor.  After laying her egg, the female immediately rolls it into a pouch-like fold on her abdomen.  Once the puggle has hatched, the mother echidna solicitously tends it for seven months, after which it roams off free and solitary.

Echidnas have an extra sense, electoreceptivity, but for them it is much weaker than it is in their close cousins the platypuses.  It has also been noted that echidnas vibrate. Water placed near captive echidnas shows distinct ripples in the surface. Perhaps they vocalize on frequencies beneath the range of human hearing (as do elephants).  Speaking of captivity, Echidnas have survived for up to 30 years in zoos even though it is a difficult environment for the blithesome free-roaming animals.  It is believed they live twice that long in the wild—but, again, nobody really knows.

Agh! Get away from there! I though you had a large neocortex!

Likewise nobody knows the echidnas’ total population numbers or how healthy the species is.  What is known is that, sadly, even the intelligent and peaceful echidnas are running into problems in the modern world.  Like other good-hearted pedestrians, echidnas are often killed by careless drivers.  Echidnas face increasing habitat destruction from human houses, farms, and roads.  Likewise they must deal with new predators, the dingos, which have discovered that urinating on balled-up echidnas will cause the latter to uncurl for a moment in stunned disgust (giving the ruthless dogs a chance to rip into their guts).

I wonder what echidnas think of us.  They know of our traps, our radio-tracking devices, and they know how to avoid aborigine hunters.  They are becoming wise to our deadly cars and to the dirty tricks of dingos.  Still they remain curious about people and will sometimes come out of the wilderness in groups to examine our suburbs and cities before melting back into the wild.  Humankind took a long while to understand that echidnas are not dim-witted reptilian pincushions but rather clever and highly developed generalists.  Do they generously think the same of us, or do they put humankind from their mind as something foul when they head back to the ancient, open outback?

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