16 March 2007

Fire ants--even monks can't stand them

TscfirMalaysian monks whose Buddhist faith prevents them from harming any living creature are searching for a way to get rid of a colony of fire ants whose members drop out of trees to sting them as they meditate, with quite painful results.

As we've mentioned before, Walter Tschinkel is possibly the only person on the planet who likes fire ants. And he's our author. He's written what is likely the be-all and end-all of fire ant studies in the form of The Fire Ants, his 800-page opus that tells you everything you need to know about these weird little creatures.

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08 August 2006

Ant nests

Plate_09c_1Now this is cool. See this Cabinet Magazine article from 2001 on HUP author Walter Tschinkel, where he explains a technique he developed for mapping ant nests using plaster casts. Unsatisfied with conventional, two-dimensional methods of visualizing the nests, Tschinkel decided to get a closer look by filling live ant nests with plaster, waiting for it to harden, and then painstakingly "excavating" his model, often in pieces (one large model had to be broken into 180 pieces and reassembled!). See the photo at left for what the finished product looks like.

The 3-D models helped to change Tshinkel's thinking on the relationship between form and function when it comes to ant nests. From the article:

"I was astounded that the nest looked different than I had imagined," he says. "I am now convinced that nest architecture is functional because it organizes the worker force and is in turn organized by ant behavior."

As an example of this "feedback loop," Tschinkel points out that workers are arranged vertically according to age: The younger workers are born deep in the nests and spend the first part of their lives tending to the queen. As they age they move closer to the surface, eventually becoming foragers. The top of the nest, which tends to be more hollowed out with chambers, "bears the mark of the older workers partly because they have a higher tendency to dig."

"Certainly the nest is the product of their behavior," he says, "but it also serves as a ladder on which they arrange themselves. This long extended vertical structure allows them to differentiate labor so that they don't all do all the same tasks in the same chambers. It's like a factory and it's all logically arranged so that the work can move from one area to the next in an efficient manner."

Tschinkel is the author of The Fire Ants, which can be fairly said to be the be-all and end-all of fire ant studies at this point. For those of you who wonder why you should be interested in fire ants, check out our last post on Tschinkel--you'll find that he's not your average scientist (or science writer).

12 June 2006

The fire ants are coming

Tscfir_1 Think about an animal you love. Maybe it's a puppy or a cute little kitty cat. Maybe it's even an adorable little bunny rabbit. What could be cuter than a bunny rabbit?

Walter Tschinkel is not like you. If you're Walter Tschinkel, the animals you love are...ants. Yes, ants. And not just any ants--the type of ants that Walter Tschinkel loves are fire ants. Fire ants (Solenopsis invicta for the initiated) are called "fire ants" because they're red and they sting. Fire ants are not cute. And they don't just ruin picnics. Since arriving in the American South around 1930 (mainly aboard steamships from South America), they've gone on periodic rampages, leaving crops, irrigation systems and wildlife in their murderous wake.

Walter Tschinkel loves fire ants so much that he's written a 723-page book detailing everything he's learned during thirty-five years of studying them. But The Fire Ants is not your average scientific tome, for Tschinkel has a way with words that most myrmecologists (biologists who specialize in ants, but we bet you knew that) and indeed most scientists lack. What other book on pests could cause James Gorman of the New York Times to exclaim:

I have just had an epiphany while reading about ants, and I would like to thank Walter Tschinkel, distinguished research professor of biological science at Florida State University.

Gorman goes on:

Enlightenment came...as I read the "Interludes" that Dr. Tschinkel has sprinkled throughout the book. These are observations and anecdotes not about the ants, but about the scientists who study them, about the personal experience of myrmecology. My favorite, an economical two-page essay called "The Porter Wedge Micrometer: Mental Health for Myrmecologists," should be required reading for any scientist who wants to write for the public.


This brief essay is entertaining and significant, a real glimpse of what science is and how it is done by human beings, rational and un-, grappling with technique, nature and the gathering of information.

This is what the public needs to know about science, not just the results presented in the driest form possible. My epiphany came when I realized that all scientific journals should require interludes and asides--little stories to go along with methods, discussion and conclusions.

Don't just take Gorman's word for it, though. Consider this pithy little section from The Fire Ants entitled "You Call That Pain!?," which reads like a passage from Michael Crichton's The Hot Zone:

Many southerners grow hyperbolic when describing the pain of fire ant stings, but to the connoisseur of pain, the fire ant is less than ordinary. For example, have yourself stung by the Florida harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex badius) for comparison purposes. The worker will painlessly slip her stinger into your skin, and before you feel anything, will inject a proteinaceous venom that is, weight for weight, 20 times as toxic as rattlesnake venom. By the time you notice that you have been stung, it is too late. For at least 24 hours the skin will throb with a dull, chronic pain. The dampness you feel on your skin at the site of the sting is not sweat brought on by the inflammation; it is plasma leaking out through the skin as a result of an enzyme that unglues your cells from one another. The lymph nodes nearest the sting become painful, and the victim may suffer flu-like symptoms. Even so, the harvester ant is a mere tap on the forehead compared to a Central American ant fondly known as "the bullet" (Paraponera spp.). Following a sting from one of these giant ants, a person can enjoy blinding pain as the knees go weak and the hands tremble. Lying down is recommended. Now that's a sting!

The Fire Ants has plenty of scientific meat to it, but Gorman's right--it's passages like this that make scientific literature palatable, even enjoyable for a larger audience. This is just what Tschinkel has done, and the result is nothing short of remarkable. This is the only science book that has ever had us howling out loud.

Tschinkel recently sat down with an Associated Press reporter to explain his obsession and to mount a defense of his chosen object of affection. After all, he points out, fire ants are just doing what evolution tells them to do when they invade our farmland and eat the foundations out from under our roads. He's even capable of waxing philosophical about our unrelenting hatred of these awful creatures:

Most people hate fire ants without reservation, without reflection. Perhaps this is what the fire ant has to offer us--something we can all agree to hate, something about whose reprehensibility there is no argument, something we can blame and that won't argue back.

Fire ants can bring us all together--now that's positively utopian. Like we said, not your average science book. But then again, Walter Tschinkel is not your average scientist.

||| Read an excerpt from The Fire Ants.

30 May 2006

More caterpillars

Milonh_1If you read our previous post about 100 Caterpillars, you'll have seen some of the amazing caterpillar photos contained therein. The authors have just written an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that reproduces some of those images and explains just what's going on.

For example, that photo of the lovely Chioides catillus where it looks as though that impudent bug is staring you right in the face? Pure illusion--those eyes are fake, serving only to scare off predators. The real eyes are much smaller, located further down on the face. This and other tidbits make the article a joy to read. Since butterflies get all the attention, it’s a safe bet that most of us haven’t grasped the sheer diversity and ingenuity that exists in the world of caterpillars. 100 Caterpillars, with its dazzling photos, has got to be the most fun way to learn.

11 May 2006

100 Caterpillars

Milonh_1It’s easy to forget that each beautiful butterfly we see began life as a lowly caterpillar. But are they so lowly after all?

Picking up on the steam generated by last fall’s release of The Smaller Majority, HUP is again turning to  six-color printing technology to reproduce the colors of the natural world. Just released, 100 Caterpillars consists of one hundred large-format photographs that showcase the marvelous diversity that characterizes the world of caterpillars.

The photographs are staggering--you’re not going to get much closer than this without going to the rainforest yourself. Presented in extreme close-up the colors, (particularly the greens), leap off the page, revealing details the casual observer simply wouldn’t notice. It’s a safe bet that you’ll never look at a caterpillar the same way again. And if that weren’t enough, next Spring HUP plans to publish 100 Butterflies, a follow-up volume that will show you what these caterpillars look like when they’re all grown up.

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