Monday, August 20, 2007

Will the ants cry uncle?

It's summer, and the ants come in to play. I've placed an ant trap in my cubicle at work. Perhaps I should have placed another ant. As a Sacramento TV station (CBS 13) noted last year:

Hoping to trigger an ant civil war, U.C. Irvine scientists are experimenting with a colorless potion that makes bosom-buddy arthropods try to decapitate one another....

The glue that unites the ants is their scent, a hydrocarbon-laced secretion that coats their exoskeletons and enables the insects to identify one another as friends.

But biologist Neil Tsutsui and chemist Kenneth Shea recently created a synthetic version of the Californian ant scent, then tweaked the ingredients slightly and transferred the concoction onto ants serving as guinea pigs, The Times reported.

Like cheap cologne, the new scent offended nearly every other ant in the room. One whiff and they began tearing their suddenly strange-smelling comrades to shreds....

If ants get a cold and a stuffy nose, or whatever passes for a nose on an ant, it's all over for them. Here's another smelly ant story:

In his autobiography Naturalist, Edward O Wilson, the world's foremost authority on ants, tells a delightful story that illustrates nicely what pheromones mean to ants.

When an ant dies, it crumples to the floor of the colony and lies there. Its mates take no notice at all: they carry on with their work, stepping around and over the corpse as they scurry about. After a couple of days, a few worker ants will suddenly pick up their dead comrade and carry him out to a kind of ant garbage dump.

Why wait two days for this funeral? Because the dead ant releases a chemical after that time. This is his announcement that he has really died. This was Wilson's hypothesis, but he took a while to isolate the chemical itself. When he did, he found dramatic confirmation of its efficacy.

What Wilson did was to smear some of the chemical on a very alive worker in a colony. Immediately, several of its companions picked up the struggling, squirming little animal and carted it off to the dump. The ant wandered back in, only for the performance to be repeated. Driven by the inexorable logic of the chemical, the ants on the graveyard shift paid no attention to their comrade's frantic antics to show life. It smelled dead: it had to be dead. It was only when the odour wore off that they left it alone once more.

I want to see the itty bitty paintbrush that Wilson used to put the stuff on the ant.

I wonder what would happen if a human were painted in this way. Would thousands of ants surround the human in a Gulliver's Travels kind of way?


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