1. As readers of this blog no doubt recall, I have a deep and abiding interest in Nature, especially when it’s behaving in a blood-curdling, utterly horrifying way, such that it would make a slasher movie writer blanch. For purely scientific reasons, of course. Check here and here to whet your purely scientific curiosity.
Off hand, I don’t know what unspeakable horrors the innocent-looking carpenter ants have committed to deserve this, but check this out:
“How the Zombie Fungus Takes Over Ants’ Bodies to Control Their Minds.” As in:
The subheading piles on thus: “The infamous parasite’s methods are more complex and more sinister than anyone suspected.”
Okee-dokee, then. So Nature has produced, via, one supposes, the tender ministrations of Natural Selection, funguses that infect ants’ – oh, let’s just go there, cut to the chase – YOUR body, paralyze your mind so that you are reduced to a mute witness to your own long, horrid and painful destruction, causes you to shamble about for its own purposes – then devours you from the inside out, reducing your soft, Western-raised flesh to its own offspring – and then causes your body to sprout hideous protrusions to release them so that they may do the same to your loved ones. Got that?
More or less. I may have extrapolated a little. You probably have nothing to worry about. For now. Sleep tight.
Here’s how the folks at the Atlantic put it:
When the fungus infects a carpenter ant, it grows through the insect’s body, draining it of nutrients and hijacking its mind. Over the course of a week, it compels the ant to leave the safety of its nest and ascend a nearby plant stem. It stops the ant at a height of 25 centimeters—a zone with precisely the right temperature and humidity for the fungus to grow. It forces the ant to permanently lock its mandibles around a leaf. Eventually, it sends a long stalk through the ant’s head, growing into a bulbous capsule full of spores. And because the ant typically climbs a leaf that overhangs its colony’s foraging trails, the fungal spores rain down onto its sisters below, zombifying them in turn.
For the sake of brevity, we will let pass the question of if ants have minds in any meaningful sense (It is part of the modern project to insist that minds and brains are the same thing. The insistence is instantiated via pretending there isn’t any question.). The reason these poor ants are back in the news (how are they ever off the news, BTW? Why aren’t there 24×7 cable and YouTube channels devoted to this? Has Capitalism let me down *again*?!?) is that there also exists in Nature the kind of researchers who will a) devote their lives to the study of this fungus; b) gather infected ant bodies in the jungle; c) cut these bodies up into 50-micron thick slices; and d) study said slices under electron microscopes until they have some idea exactly how the fungus works its evil magic.
Whenever Hughes or anyone else discusses the zombie-ant fungus, they always talk about it as a single entity, which corrupts and subverts a host. But you could also think of the fungus as a colony, much like the ants it targets. Individual microscopic cells begin life alone but eventually come to cooperate, fusing into a superorganism. Together, these brainless cells can commandeer the brain of a much larger creature.
But surprisingly, they can do that without ever physically touching the brain itself. Hughes’s team found that fungal cells infiltrate the ant’s entire body, including its head, but they leave its brain untouched. There are other parasites that manipulate their hosts without destroying their brains, says Kelly Weinersmithfrom Rice University. For example, one flatworm forms a carpet-like layer over the brain of the California killifish, leaving the brain intact while forcing the fish to behave erratically and draw the attention of birds—the flatworm’s next host. “But manipulation of ants by Ophiocordyceps is so exquisitely precise that it is perhaps surprising that the fungus doesn’t invade the brain of its host,” Weinersmith says.
In retrospect, that makes sense. “If such parasites were merely invading and destroying neuronal tissue, I don’t think the manipulated behaviors that we observe would be as compelling as they are,” says Charissa de Bekker from the University of Central Florida. “Something much more intricate must be going on.” She notes that the fungus secretes a wide range of chemicals that could influence the brain from afar.
So what we have here is a hostile takeover of a uniquely malevolent kind. Enemy forces invading a host’s body and using that body like a walkie-talkie to communicate with each other and influence the brain from afar. Hughes thinks the fungus might also exert more direct control over the ant’s muscles, literally controlling them “as a puppeteer controls as a marionette doll.” Once an infection is underway, he says, the neurons in the ant’s body—the ones that give its brain control over its muscles—start to die. Hughes suspects that the fungus takes over. It effectively cuts the ant’s limbs off from its brain and inserts itself in place, releasing chemicals that force the muscles there to contract. If this is right, then the ant ends its life as a prisoner in its own body. Its brain is still in the driver’s seat, but the fungus has the wheel.
(Note how we switch back to talking about brains without even pumping the breaks? That’s how moderns ‘win’ arguments – by pretending they don’t exist. But I digress…)
This article is so judgemental! The fungus is not ‘sinister’ or ‘malevolent’ or any other of the many harsh terms applied to it by the Atlantic writer. It’s just doing it’s thing – to ants we’d promptly wash away with bleach and rags if they set foot in our houses. Yet, here we are, all high and mighty! It’s stuff like this that separates the *real* nature lovers from squeamish posers!
*may not be the canonical version of that dialogue. But it should be.
2. Finally got some rain. Over an inch and a half in the last 24 hours, which in California nearly qualifies as a epic storm. All in, for the season we’re a couple inches into our supposed average of around 17 inches. Good start.
For my part, I’m predicting another 1862 event, as discussed briefly here by Michael Flynn. Why? Well, why not? First, I heard somewhere that weather years, just like daily weather, tend to travel in packs – the best predictor of tomorrow’s weather is today’s weather; the best predictor of next year’s weather is this year’s weather. If it’s cold and rainy today, it’s more than likely to be cold and rainy tomorrow, and so on.
Thus, since the 2016-2017 California rainy season was EPIC! I’m going with predicting the 2017-2018 season will be MEGA EPIC!! Why let the Bible-thumper End Times dudes have all the fun? Seriously, let’s hope not, as California’s infrastructure, especially the dams, irrigation canals, water systems and aging levees (you knew California has a LOT of levees, right? No?) are in no way ready for it, and would probably be destroyed. So, no, let’s not – except I want to be on record having predicted it, just in case. Consistency, hobgoblins, and all that.
How it works: every few hundred years, the educated guesses go, that whole atmospheric river thing starts dipping into its major stash of steroids, and you get, using the 1861-1862 season for example, 43 straight days of pounding rain spread across the entire state. You get 250% of the snowpack, and many feet of rain on the western slopes of the Sierra. The Central Valley, into which ALL the rivers coming out of the western slopes of the Sierra drain, and which, in turn drains ONLY out the Sacramento River Delta into San Francisco Bay, turns into a giant lake. Over the century and a half since 1862, miles and miles of levees have been built in the delta, turning hundreds of square miles of wetlands into farmland – much of which is below river level, and all of which is below flood level.
Meanwhile, many urban water systems have been built along the river and delta – the one my house gets its water from, for example – that, should the river flood and the old, poorly maintained levees break, would be washed away, clogged up, or, when the flood water recedes, flooded with the salt water that is what makes up the bulk of the San Francisco
Bay Estuary and which is currently held back from reaching the drinking water supply by those same levees. And SoCal gets a huge portion of its water via aqueducts that are fed, ultimately, from the dams in the Sierra – which are not likely to survive a megastorm.
Ugly. Just like the drivers this morning who honked at me, first because I did not close the two car length gap that opened up on the light change with sufficient alacrity, second because I had the temerity to change lanes into the space the honker had let open up in front of him – the nerve! Californians do not, alas, respond well to the traffic jams these early storm inevitably create.