Our fascinating planet of insects, animals and all that lie in between – part one.

This blog offers a glimpse into some of the most interesting, yet underappreciated, life forms that share this planet and their fascinating characteristics. A specific feature or attribute will be explored for each given organism which will hopefully serve as both a gateway towards more fascination with the natural world and as a warning to those who have a vested interest in dominion over diversity.

Bees

We know that bees pollinate gardens, contribute billions to the crop industry and are the foundation on which much of plant life lies, but what about the waggle dance? Bees have an incredible ability to not only locate nectar sources as individuals but notify others of their discovery nearby. When a honeybee locates a large nectar site, the worker will return back to the hive where they perform a dance called the “waggle” in a particular spot of the hive. Here, other bees watch as the performer conducts a figure-eight pattern, with a straight walk in between the loops and a sporadic flutter of the wings.

Incredibly, during the waggle dance, components like the duration and stance help inform the workers as to where the nectar actually is. Case in point, for every 75 milliseconds the bee dances, it adds another 100 meters to the distance. Bees also have an incredible ability to advise their fellow workers where the nectar is based on the location of the sun. Given that a hive is vertical, if the nectar source was located directly in line with the sun, the bee will perform the waggle directly upwards. Or if the site was 40 degrees to the right of the sun, their performance is 40 degrees right to the vertical. The waggle dance, in essence, is the bee survival language.

Don’t believe it? Check this out.

Sloths

With the adorable face and laughable physical attributes, it’s little wonder why sloths became the face of animal pop culture and Instagram’s favourite animal. But what about their awe-inspiring benefits to rainforest ecosystems? Incredibly, the fur of sloths is effectively a micro-ecosystem. Sloth hair has a unique structure containing microcracks which are – simply speaking – tiny linear cracks. These microcracks are the perfect condition for algae and fungi to thrive. Sloth hair is also laced with entire colonies of insects. According to Sloth Sanctuary, up to 950 moths, beetles, cockroaches and even worms can be found in the rugged terrain of sloth hair. Throughout the cooler months, sloth hair slowly transitions into a light green which represents the increase in algae concentrations.

Perhaps even more fascinating, there are 6 species of moths that coexist with sloths, however, when a sloth descends from the canopy once a week to go to the restroom, these moths will crawl out from within the sloth hair and lay their eggs on the faeces. Since the larvae are coprophagous (feed on fruit), sloth waste serves as important nutrients for the new eggs during development. Once the larvae are born, the moths fly up to the canopy in search of a permanent residence within another sloth. The cycle continues.
Whilst we may find this cycle and sloth hair distasteful, it goes to show the importance of sloths and the symbiotic relationships that exist; which we ought to protect.

Bacteria

Whilst a controversial topic, it must be stressed that bacteria aren’t always the ecological villain. Indeed, bacteria in many cases carry out the most fundamental services for existence. Take the nitrogen cycle as an example.
Nitrogen is an essential component of chlorophyll which allows plants to photosynthesise, and produce amino acids and proteins. Nitrogen is also essential in nucleic acids in both DNA and RNA (the building blocks of life). Simply put, without the nitrogen cycle life would cease to exist.

Due to nitrogen-fixing bacteria, atmospheric nitrogen can be utilised by a process called nitrogen fixation, whereby bacteria convert nitrogen into ammonia, then nitrite, and finally nitrate in the soil. Nitrate can, subsequently, be taken up by plants via the help of fungi which – as already discussed – supports the production of chlorophyll, amino acids and more. However, if the soil lacks oxygen, anaerobic bacteria convert nitrates back into atmospheric nitrogen to increase the oxygen supply.
Even special nitrogen-fixing plants only work due to their unique ability to store huge amounts of bacteria in their root nodules which are released into the soil as beneficial ammonium. According to scientists, without nitrogen-fixing bacteria and bacterial in general, plants would be left incapable and biologically inept, leaving all life that depends on flora in a state of extinction. When considering the food chain, that encompasses all existence.

Beneath the layer of soil, lie factories of microscopic life working away to support the development of oxygen-producing and carbon-sequestering trees, plants for animal habitat, and crops for our own survival.

Pigs

Contrary to popular belief, pigs are among the smartest and most social animals on earth. Indeed, pigs often rank between the 6th and 8th smartest animals in the world – exceeding dogs and other close companions. According to Animal Encylopedia, at 6 weeks of age pigs are able to comprehend the concept of reflection; the same concept takes humans many months to develop. Moreover, studies analysing pig cognition found they demonstrate clever social behaviour by discretely communicating about a given food source away from neighbouring animals to reduce awareness from competing groups. In general, pigs have illustrated a high ability in both memory and problem-solving. Many pigs that are rescued from factory farms or slaughterhouses are often toilet-trained and kept as pets given that pigs can also be trained relatively easily; often quicker to pick up house rules than dogs.

Pigs are very social animals, few animals are more socially connected than pigs. Case in point, pigs always sleep together and can often be found cuddling one another. Those introduced as pets after being rescued will often come to form close connections with fellow human companions like dogs; a testimony to the intelligence and social behaviour of pigs.

It’s hardly surprising that factory farm operations that separate pigs from one another have shown to exacerbate the psychological torment that already comes from the stressful and loud environment. Behind the salami and bacon strips was an animal that pleaded for love, friends and exploration of the natural world. Such a basic and fundamental request that – together – we could ensure comes true for the next generation.

Praying mantis

Perhaps you have had an argument with a friend, colleague or partner. Perhaps you slept on the couch or at a friend’s house one night after a disagreement. Insects like the praying mantis, however, take a different approach. During or – most commonly – after mating, a female mantis devours their partner. Praying mantis are notorious for a common evolutionary practice known as “sexual cannibalism”, whereby the female eats the male mantis after mating.

Perhaps you and your partner once had an argument about soaring food prices and how food would reach the table. From an evolutionary standpoint, praying mantis have this issue well and truly sorted, with this cannibalistic activity between females and their ill-fated mates done to aid female pregnancy and increase nutrient uptake. As stated in The Guardian, “female praying mantises who eat their mates after sex produce a greater number of eggs than those who do not.” After mating, the female stores the male sperm and later uses it to fertilise the eggs in her body.

New studies have revealed that during this complicated affair, the males often try to wrestle their way out of death, though, their escape plans are often unsuccessful due to their smaller size and weight. However, a study published in Biology Letters found that males (in spite of their smaller anatomy) who successfully grabbed the female with their serrated raptorial foreleg (long arms) “reduced the incidence of cannibalism by 78%.”

From kung fu to high fives, organic pest controllers to gardeners, and even sexual cannibalism – there are few insects more interesting (and eccentric) than the praying mantis. Just perhaps one we shouldn’t rely on for couples counselling.

More fascination and obscurity coming next week…

To view bibliography, click here.

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