Written by Kevin Hower Tuesday, 01 September 2009 13:19
Imagine that you are walking along, and someone comes up behind you. They wrap their arms around you to carry you off. Almost without having to think about it, you arch your back a certain way and your ribs pierce the sides of your body, simultaneously impaling your attacker and dosing them with a strong poison.
Although not something that would ever happen to a person, it’s a regular event in the life of a Spanish ribbed newt. The act of piercing its sides doesn’t seem to cause any permanent damage to the newt, but its ribs can severely injure the predator that tries to capture it.
Then again, if it came down to a difference between having to heal for a short time or being dead, I would naturally take the former any day.
In the “Alien” movies, the title creatures use their corrosive blood as a weapon. Although scientists haven’t seen any corrosive blood such as is depicted in the movies, many creatures are known to use their blood as a weapon.
Parts of Africa are home to armored ground crickets that squirt blood—called haemolymph—at their attackers, and will frequently vomit on themselves as well. Their most common predators have a strong aversion to eating these crickets, or any other insects, which have the foul-smelling toxic liquid on them.
However, these defense mechanisms also have a downside: They tend to make the cricket more susceptible to being eaten by its own kind.
Ampulex compressa, also known as the emerald cockroach wasp, is a form of parasitic wasp. It stings the roach in a specific spot in its brain which controls the instinct to flee, shutting that area down. Then, since the wasp is much smaller than its prey, it hops on the cockroach’s back.
The wasp uses the helpless roach’s antennae to steer it. Once back in the wasp’s den, it stings the cockroach again to permanently paralyze it, after which it becomes an incubator and future meal for the wasp’s larvae.
The Asian giant hornet can grow to be 2 inches long with a 3-inch wingspan, and kills around 20 to 40 people throughout Asia—mostly in Japan where they’re most common—every year. It has a quarter-inch stinger that injects a venom potent enough to dissolve human tissue around the sting.
These insects will raid honeybee nests in groups, and slaughter every last bee that lives inside in a short time.
Non-native bees are especially vulnerable, but Japanese honeybees have evolved an amazing defense. When a hornet comes scouting the nest to mark it for extermination by others of its kind, the bees swarm over its body and begin vibrating their own abdomens.
This action raises the temperature inside the mass of bees to above what the hornet can tolerate, literally roasting it alive. The bees can stand a temperature just slightly higher, so they don’t die from the heat.
It may seem that these are all morbid examples of nature’s handiwork, and many readers may wonder why I didn’t pick more pleasant subjects to write about.
I suppose it’s a matter of perspective. One of the things I find most gratifying about science is that it’s descriptive. It doesn’t try to place moral or aesthetic judgements on any of the things it describes.
Nature can be harsh, cruel and even disgusting if one chooses to see it that way. There is pain and suffering throughout the natural world. But if that’s all someone sees in these examples, then—and this is just my opinion, nothing more—I feel they’re missing something important.
For my part, I feel that there is immense beauty to be found in the lengths to which living things will go to continue living and pass on their genes to future generations.