Stick Insects

It is not often you catch a glimpse of a stick insect out and about like this one I found basking on a wall a couple of years ago.

Members of the order Phasmatodea, these insects are also commonly called walkingsticks.

Why would I be featuring walkingsticks in a blog about ants?

Actually walkingsticks and ants have a very cool relationship, and it is one of my favorite stories to share.

Female walkingsticks are not particularly good mothers. When they lay their eggs, they simply drop them from the trees as they are feeding. This doesn’t seem like a safe strategy for making sure the eggs hatch, but female walkingsticks are relying on the services of a nanny on the ground to take care of their eggs.

Walkingstick eggs resemble seeds. In fact, the eggs have a knob on one end, called a capitulum, which looks and functions like an elasiosome of a seed. Ants find the eggs and drag them back to the safety of their underground nest. The ants remove and eat the capitulum, but generally leave the rest of the egg intact. After the walkingstick eggs develop in the nest, sometimes even overwintering there, the young walkingsticks emerge and crawl away from their protected nursery.

David Attenborough has a wonderful discussion of this in his BBC video, Life in the Undergrowth:

Just think, we might not have some types of walkingsticks if it weren’t for the services of ants. And you wonder why I’m “wild about ants.” 🙂

Slime Molds Smarter Than Ants?

Remember the television show “Are you Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”

Audrey Dussutour was recently quoted in a Wired Magazine article, “If you had a competition between slime molds and ants, the slime molds would win…”

She was talking about the ability of slime molds to “remember” where they had been, even though they have no brains or neurons. (Just for the record, ants do have brains -scroll down to see the cool illustrations).

Let’s see these slime molds in action:

Dussutour was basing her comparisons on her earlier work with ant traffic patterns (2009).

What Dussutour and her colleagues are really studying is an organism’s ability to chemically mark its environment in order to either revisit or avoid the same position. The slime molds produce a long term slime (mucus) that prevents them from returning to the same spots they have visited previously. Ants, on the other hand, often lay short-term pheromone trails to help guide others to a food source.

An ant running a more complex maze:

Seems like similar mechanisms with different goals.

So, myrmecologists, are we going to take this sitting down? Are slime molds really better at “remembering” where they have been than ants?

References/See Also:

Chris R. Reid, Tanya Latty, Audrey Dussutour, and Madeleine Beekman. (2012). Slime mold uses an externalized spatial “memory” to navigate in complex environments PNAS 2012 109 (43) 17490-17494.

Dussutour, A., Beshers, S., Deneubourg, J. L. and Fourcassié, V. (2009). Priority rules govern the organization of traffic on foraging trails under crowding conditions in the leaf-cutting ant Atta colombica. Journal of Experimental Biology,  212 (4): 499-505

Vincent Fourcassié, Audrey Dussutour, and Jean-Louis Deneubourg. (2010). Ant traffic rules. The Journal of Experimental Biology 213: 2357-2363. download for free here

Social Amoeba Practices Agriculture

Memory in Ants

Alex Wild’s recent post about photographing slime molds, with great photographs

The Great Bee Count This Weekend

We have another opportunity for citizen science this week, this time with bees.

In conjunction with the ongoing Great Sunflower Project, researchers are looking for volunteers across the country to participate in  The Great Bee Count on August 11, 2012. All it requires is to spend 15 minutes on Saturday August 11, 2012 counting bees on flowers. If possible the flowers should be sunflowers (preferably, Lemon Queen), bee balm, cosmos, tickseed, or purple coneflower.

To participate, login or register at the Great Sunflower Project website. You will be asked to download a data sheet with detailed instructions to record your results. After you count, you return to the website and click on the “Report your bee count” link to input your observations.

Just to be clear, you don’t have to have participated previously. This is a special, one time count. Also, if you can’t count on Saturday, you can also report results from another day.