Freaky Science!

Image of Eunectes murinus.
A green anaconda. They can get 20+ feet long and weigh a couple hundred pounds. But I’m more afraid of the fire ants.

Cruising about the Google news feed for Science!,  came across this article on green anacondas in the Everglades. Invasive species, giant scary snake, the usual – but then, comes this little gem:

He pointed out that the Burmese pythons, as bad as their invasion seems, face a constraint on their numbers that the green anaconda doesn’t. The Everglades are riddled with another invasive species that has conquered most of the Gulf Coast: fire ants. Fire ants were brought to Gulf of Mexico ports accidentally by cargo ships from South America. They are notorious for attacking in swarms with extremely painful stings. Most ants have a bit of formic acid in their bite, but the fire ant also has a stinger equipped with a necrotizing venom.

Normally an animal stung by a fire ant will flee and survive. But creatures that can’t or won’t move away are at risk of being swarmed, killed, and eaten. Newborn calves are sometimes killed by fire ants before they can get to their feet. Burmese pythons are sometimes at a similar disadvantage. The females spend several months each year guarding their eggs by wrapping their bodies around them and defending against any would-be egg thieves. This places the python—and her leathery eggs—at risk of attack by marauding ants.

One Burmese python at Trail Lakes, captured in the wild and kept in a large outdoor enclosure, was swarmed by fire ants that tunneled up from beneath her while she guarded her eggs. By the end of the day she and her brood had been reduced to little more than scales and bones. Given the ubiquity of fire ants in the Everglades, it’s imaginable that the ants are limiting the population growth of the pythons.

Got that? A snake that outweighs a brace of supermodels is reduced to scales and bones in a less than a day – by ants. But wait! There’s more: fire ants must have some predators, right? All that 6-legged protein can’t expect to wander around without getting eaten. Turns out that certain small flies have figured out how to feast on them in a way that would make horror movie directors wince:

Members of Pseudacteon reproduce by laying eggs in the thorax of the ant. The first instar larvae migrates to the head, then develops by feeding on the hemolymph, muscle tissue, and nervous tissue. After about two weeks, they cause the ant’s head to fall off by releasing an enzyme that dissolves the membrane attaching the ant’s head to its body. The fly pupates in the detached head capsule, emerging two weeks later.

Is Nature GREAT, or what? I’m betting those flies end up in webs where spiders slowly suck their still-living bodies dry. Then, wasps grab the spiders, paralyze them, lay an egg on them, and stick ’em in a hole, where they can be eaten alive by the newly-hatched baby wasps, who, no doubt, complete the great Circle of Life by dying slowly at the mandibles of some other creeping horror. Ya know? Makes having a pack of dingoes disembowel you alive sound not so bad.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

13 thoughts on “Freaky Science!”

    1. I’ve long believed – for upwards of 30 seconds now and running – that kids would have had a less traumatic time with hunters shooting Bambi’s mom if Bambi himself had been promptly killed and devoured by fire ants. Not only would the Circle of Life become very clear in all its glory, the movie itself would have been much shorter – a win-win!

      But that ship has sailed, probably from South America loaded with invasive species.

      1. And hits exactly 25 words! The beaches are OK, if the fire ants don’t get you. That nobody ever reports seeing any on the beach is merely proof of how efficient and stealthy they are. Kind of like the Mafia.

        Taking the family to Newport Beach, CA for the 4 days before Thanksgiving. Feel a little like Crocodile Dundee: Now, there’s your beach!

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