BOOK REVIEW: Empire of Ants by Susanne & Olaf Foitzik

Empire of Ants: The Hidden World and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny ConquerorsEmpire of Ants: The Hidden World and Extraordinary Lives of Earth’s Tiny Conquerors by Susanne Foitzik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 6, 2021

 

In love with our own grandeur, most humans don’t give a thought to the magnificence of other species, and this is particularly true of ants. People use ants as their go-to being to fill in the SAT Analogy “Gods are to Humans as Humans are to ______________.” When we want to explain how some more capable entity (be it a god, a trans-galactic alien species, or an advanced artificial intelligence) is more likely to kill us through indifference than through maliciousness, we draw upon the image of an ant about to be crushed under the boot of a person who’s just going about his day, harboring no ill-will towards his six-legged neighbors.

This book will roll back that smug attitude, impressing the reader not only with all the little-known but intriguing behaviors of ants, but also with the range of skills employed by ants that we humans have always thought of as our unique bailiwick – e.g. city building, agriculture, slavery, war, and communication of complex ideas.

The book consists of fourteen chapters and a brief epilogue. The introductory chapter not only prepares the reader to be more impressed by ants, it also explains how crucial ants are collectively to our ecosystems. Chapter two explores the ant caste system in much more detail than the usual queen / worker / drone distinction, and it also explains how sex is determined in a manner quite different than that to which we are used. Chapter three continues an extensive discussion of reproduction that was begun in the previous chapter.

Chapter four dives into what might be called the governance of ant colonies. That may sound grandiose (and, in some sense, it is) but we are talking about huge populations living in a relatively small space. While sci-fi might have one imagining the queen ruling with an iron first while all others act as mindless automatons, the truth is very different, and – in fact – after establishment of the nest, the queen leaves the the thinking business altogether. Chapters five and six investigate the subjects of communication and navigation, respectively. Ants have a tremendously varied set of chemical emitters and receptors, allowing them to communicate a wide range of messages with great clarity. They also communicate through physical contact. Anyone who has ever seen a line of ants in convoy probably suspects that ants must be skilled at getting where they need to go and back. This chapter explains the methods by which ants achieve this purposeful motion, from chemical signals to navigation by the sun to – in some cases – an internal magnetic compass.

Chapter seven takes the reader into the realm of ant militaries, elucidating how they hunt, bivouac, and carry out the various tasks required of them. Chapter eight introduces the question of how colonies (that can be on par with human cities with respect to population) feed everyone, and gives special attention to leafcutter supply chain logistics and in-colony fungiculture. Chapter nine examines the lives of tree-dwelling ants. In this chapter, we learn that not only do ants engage in activities we think of as human; some also perform activities we associate with other species – such as silk weaving. Chapter ten continues the book’s examination of ant agriculture by explaining how some ants keep aphids as livestock [the aphids consume leaves and excrete sugars as a waste product because there is far more of it than they need for their own purposes.]

While chapter seven indicated how ants share some of the less palatable habits of humans – specifically, war, chapter eleven delves into some of the downright loathsome activities these insects share with our species – including: enslavement and theft. Chapter twelve identifies some of the threats to ant health and well-being, including tape worms and fungal parasites. You may have read about the fungus that can hijack an ant’s nervous system to turn it into a zombie (Ophiocordyceps camponoti-floridani,) eventually the fruiting body of the cordyceps pops out of the ant’s head to release spores (after the fungus has “driven” the ant high up into a tree from which the spores can be widely distributed.)

Chapter 13, entitled “The Path to World Domination,” is largely about how invasive species have come to take over in many parts of the world. This includes fire ants, which the Spanish (unwittingly) hauled from Mexico to the Philippines, from which the insects were dispersed all over the world via trade routes. While — throughout the entire book — intriguing ant behaviors are mentioned, the final chapter collects together a group of particularly unlikely skills that are witnessed among ants. My favorites were ants that could glide back to tree trunks when knocked off a limb, as well as another species that could catapult themselves through the air.

The book is well-illustrated, employing both drawings and color photographs. The photographs are particularly useful for showing some of the stranger species and – in a few cases – behaviors that can be difficult to visualize. There is an extensive “further reading” section that is organized by chapter.

“Empire of Ants” provides a fascinating look at an underappreciated species. Just as Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” changed the way I looked at trees, this book changed the way I see ants. I’d highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the natural world.

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DAILY PHOTO: Zebras at Mosi-oa-Tunya

Taken in June of 2017 at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia

POEM: Wounded Beasts and Where They Find You [Prose Poem]

The bleeding beast crawls into the tall grass. It shakes those shafts of tall grass, but the erratic waggle is lost in the wind shimmy.

The wounded creature seeks its hiding place like a manic kid chooses one during hide-n-go-seek. It’s not so much about never being found as it is about achieving maximum impact upon one’s reveal.

The kid wants to cause a gasp — maybe a dot where his victim peed himself, a tiny bit.

The beast wants the hunter’s knees to buckle, dropping him to the ground where he’ll try to butt-scoot away, either having dropped his rifle or holding it with such strained white-knuckle intensity that it’s of no use.

That way the beast can use its final burst of strength to lunge onto the hunter, using its bodyweight to pin him to the ground, so it can work him over like a fighter who’s got his opponent on the ropes.

I’ve been told that Cape Buffalo is the worst beast to have to follow into the elephant grass. Its bovine nature belies the savagery of its Death throes. It will not stop until either: it’s physically unable to move; or, there is no solid material left of the hunter’s body (whichever comes first.)

For those of us who never go beyond following uninjured bunnies into knee-high grass, it’s impossible to know what it’s like to track a wounded animal into the tall grass.

Distant Hills [a Haibun]

Raising my gaze, the world at a distance is softer, its contours green, a luscious green, a green which recalls past Springs. The foreground is rough and rocky, littered with rocks, some dull and others wet and glistening. A creek burbles, I know not from whence it comes. Just as I can’t say who dragged in these smooth rocks and boulders.
 
i look up
and the world ahead
pulls me forth

BOOK REVIEW: Cephalopography 2.0 by Rasiqra Revulva

Cephalopography 2.0Cephalopography 2.0 by Rasiqra Revulva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This poetry collection is unique in a couple of ways. First, its running theme is based on the animal class Cephalopoda (i.e. octopi and squid) and how human life likens to that of those many-limbed creatures. It also features ancillary material such as artistic works and interactive exercises – e.g. build your own octi-poem, “squidoku,” etc. The collection consists of free-verse and prose poetry.

The book uses a unique blend of artistic and scientific language. That characteristic creates a niche for the work, but it’s also the source of its greatest weakness, a weakness that lies in the fact that a few of the poems send any reader who’s not a marine biologist running for their dictionaries. That’s a fine quality in a non-fiction book, but can make poetry difficult to absorb — given the importance of the sonic / musical quality of the medium and the need for emotional resonance.

I enjoyed the concept and found it to be clever. While most of the poems were not so laden with scientific jargon to make them incomprehensible for a general reader, a few were. That said, I don’t know how niche an audience the book is targeting. I suspect it will have trouble reaching a general audience of poetry readers, though it may resonate more with oceanographers and biologists.

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Stormy Shore Tanka


I
seas churn
under darkened skies
raindrops arrive
pelting the sandy shore
with wind-blown violence


II
the rocky shore
becomes a fierce fountain
as wave water
hits and shoots skyward
to be blown sideways


III
this storm lingers
as metaphorical storms
are known to do
natural storms are
always in motion

DAILY PHOTO: Fungi on a Field of Green

Taken in the Autumn of 2011 at Kolomoki Mounds State Park, Georgia