Monday, January 21, 2013

Suddenly ANTS! Or: Be glad our atmosphere is only 20% oxygen

So I was hanging around with some of the nerd club guys at my university and we were just chatting away about stuff, and I mentioned I'd like to take an apiology (bee-keeping) course as an elective to fill out my Biology minor. Some of the guys had already taken it (thus recommending it to me) and one of them actually worked pretty regularly in the apiary. They told me it was a really fun and easy course so long as you didn't mind being around thousands of loose flying bees for an hour or so a day.

And we got talking about bees, of course, because bees are awesome and adorable.

Just lookit that little guy...actually I think it's a gal, workers are female. Ain't she cute?

The general consensus was that honey bees are pretty easy-going as long as you don't bother them too much; bumblebees are the friendliest insects on the planet and are almost impossible to piss off (here they shared tales of actually petting bumblebees, which they actually seem to enjoy if you're gentle enough!); and wasps are absolutely terrifying and want nothing more than to ruin your day.

I disagreed with that last statement simply because I am the wasp-whisperer and I get along pretty well with almost all wasps except the big black ones and the ones who periodically nest in my back yard (IN MY SHED of all places).

No joke, in middle school I used to wait for my friends on a bench that happened to be near a garbage can which, in the warmer months, was usually a target for foraging wasps. Sitting still and remaining calm, I had the wasps come investigate me a few times (landing on my hands once or twice because I had eaten fruit with my lunch and my fingers were still sticky) but never once stinging me. One time walking home from high-school I felt something pinching my finger and lifted my hand to find a wasp chewing rather determinedly on the dry skin near the tip of my nail. It gave up and left pretty quickly, though, once it realized I tasted like human and not delicious nectar.

Om nom nom nom nectar. Get a load of those mandibles though!
According to Wikipedia these guys (paper wasps) are an invasive species from Europe. Who knew?

But anyways, bees and wasps are pretty cool and you should do some research. I found out ANOTHER cool thing from the guys at the club (one of the girls actually, an Ecology major specializing in insects).

The layman may not know this (I didn't until a few days ago), but it turns out that bees and wasps are in the same taxonomic order as ANTS! Yes, bees, wasps and ants are are very closely related. In fact, given fossil and morphological data, it turns out that wasps came first. That basically makes ants wasps that occasionally forget how to fly.

Queens (not pictured) and males tend to retain their wings in most species of ant.

So our discussion of large insects led to its logical conclusion: REALLY large insects.

Naturally being the Paleontology geek that I am, I had to mention that there was a point in time where dragonflies had almost meter-long wingspans.

Relax, guys, it's just a model. But still...They WERE that big once...
Think about it.

These things are colloquially called griffinflies. From what I understand, they only got that big because: a) there was a greater oxygen density in the atmosphere during the Permian period when they roamed the skies, so they could get that big and not asphyxiate, b) their prey was also undergoing some gigantism so they had to keep getting bigger to be able to eat them, and c) there were no airborne vertebrates at the time so there was nothing to knock them out of the sky.

In short (and most importantly), it is the current density of oxygen in the atmosphere that keeps bugs small. If it were any higher than the current ~20%, they'd probably start getting bigger (gradually, of course, it's not like evolution happens overnight. Give it a few million years.)

But take a moment to think about that. Think about how big bugs could possibly get. Dragonflies bigger than seagulls! Ants the size of house cats! Imagine a construction crew digging out a spot for a foundation and suddenly ANTS! BIG ONES! I mean JESUS!

It's scary enough as a Pokemon; this thing is a foot tall and weighs over 60 lbs!
Granted a real-life giant ant wouldn't be that heavy but STILL!

Being devious and inventive by nature, however, I realized that giant ants could easily be harnessed for all kinds of shenanigans. We all know that ants can lift several tens of times their own body weight, but given that they are tiny that's not very impressive. If we could scale that up (without the ants' exoskeletons cracking and crumpling under their own weight), you could do all sorts of fun things with giant ants...

Imagine if you will some kind of giant ant-driven sedan chair! 

or...

Ant-sledding, anyone?
Oh yeah and actual practical stuff like field work, surveying, possibly simple maintenance jobs....

In theory, driving giant ants would be pretty simple. If they stay as dumb as their tiny counterparts, all you would need are swabs of a few different pheromones to either tag things with to get them to pick them up and move them around (ants tag dead/dying colony members with a pheromone that tells others to carry them away from the colony), or a scent trail for them to follow (when ants march single-file like that, they're following a pheromone trail left behind by a scout). If they end up being smarter (you know, bigger brains and all that), it's possible that a few generations in captivity could train them in a few simple tasks.

So, some six-legged food for thought this time around! Consider the awesomeness of bees and ants and how lucky we are to walk alongside the tiny species we have today instead of the giants of yester-era!

Until next time!

(Big thanks to Wikipedia, Bulbapedia, and LakeLouise.com for the images and fact-checking!)

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