Monkeys eat—and then floss

Monkeys living on an island have learned to use a startling variety of tools and techniques to obtain the juicy innards of different foods – and to floss their teeth afterwards.

The Nicobar long-tailed macaque is only found on three islands in the eastern Indian Ocean. One of them is Great Nicobar Island. Many of the macaques’ favoured foods are thorny, slimy, hairy or mucky. To get rid of these inedible coatings, the macaques either wash the foods in puddles or wrap them in leaves and rub them clean.

The macaques eat coconuts too, plucking them from the tree by twisting them around or using their teeth to cut them off. If it is tender, the macaques de-husk the coconut using their teeth. (As someone who’s tried husking a coconut at home, it takes some knife skills 🙂 but these monkeys do it with their teeth!)

After eating, macaques clean their teeth – they were seen holding a fine fibre between their teeth and pulling at it. The macaques used a range of materials as dental floss: a tree needle, a bird feather, a blade of grass, a coconut fibre, a nylon thread and a metal wire. (I wondered if the need to floss comes from all that coconut husk getting stuck in the teeth, but no). They did so after eating various foods in different habitats, the researchers told me.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, read the rest of the story published in New Scientist here.

Fungus creates zombie bugs with a short afterlife

Dying on a bed of flowers might seem like a good way to go. Except it’s not when you’re a beetle suffering a gruesome fungal infection.

Goldenrod soldier beetles (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) feed and mate on flowers – and that’s where some of them meet their end, too. When infected with the fungus Eryniopsis lampyridarum, the beetles clamp their jaws onto a flower and die soon after.

Hours later and still stuck to the flowers, the dead beetles’ wings snap open as though ready to fly. With their wings raised, these beetles even attract mates – live males were seen having sex with zombie females.

Read more about the zombie beetles here at New Scientist.

Photo credit: Donald Steinkraus

This tree leans more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Image-1Never mind the Leaning Tower of Pisa – this is the leaning tower of pines.

Cook pines are towering trees that were once restricted to their native home of New Caledonia, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Through cultivation, they have taken root across tropical, subtropical and temperate regions around the world.

The trees often have slightly tilting trunks. Scientists have now noticed a bizarre pattern in their tilt: they lean south in their northern range and north in their southern range.

Find out why they lean in opposite directions in my story for New Scientist.

Photo Credit: Matt Ritter

Queenless ant colony trapped in nuclear bunker forever

Keep calm and carry on building. That’s the motto of 100,000 or so wood ants stranded without food in a nuclear bunker until they starve.

Wood ants (Formica polyctena) typically build a cosy mound nest on the forest floor. They seek out the sugary secretions of aphids living on trees and supplement their diet with insects. Now, scientists have uncovered a population of wood ants that has sustained for years without food and light inside a bunker where temperatures are constantly low.

The ant population was discovered in 2013 by a group of volunteers counting bats overwintering in the bunker, which is part of an abandoned Soviet nuclear base near Templewo in western Poland.

Later, Wojciech Czechowski at the Museum and Institute of Zoology in Warsaw, Poland, and his colleagues, entered the bunker to study the ants more closely. They noticed that the wood ants had built a nest on the terracotta floor of the bunker – right below a ventilation pipe. Looking up through the five-metre-long pipe, they realised where the bunker ants come from.

Read the rest of the story over at New Scientist.

Photo credit: Wojciech Stephan

Poo matters: Earwig young survive on siblings’ poo

Desperate times call for desperate measures. As food shortages hit, European earwig babies resort to eating each other’s faeces in their underground homes, helping to keep hunger and death at bay.

In times of plentiful food, the earwig offspring, or ‘nymphs’, feast on scraps of plant and insect material that their mother brings back from her trips above ground, and on food she regurgitates.

But when faced with limited supplies, the nymphs have to make do with what’s around them to survive.

Unlike many other insects that live in groups, European earwigs don’t clear their nest of faeces. Availability of faeces in hard times keeps the nymphs alive for about two more days on average than without them, researchers have now found.

In the lab, researchers deprived 56 five-day-old nymphs of food, and offered 28 of them faeces from their siblings. Nymphs with nothing to feed on survived for an average of 14 days, but those with access to their siblings’ faeces lived for an average of 16 days.

Read the rest of the story over at New Scientist.

Photo credit: Joël Meunier

Butterfly back-stabs its guardian ants

The metalmark butterfly cooperates with ants when it’s a caterpillar, only to stab them in the back when it has metamorphosed into a beautiful – thieving – butterfly.

While still a caterpillar, the metalmark butterfly wins over local ants, including those of the species Ectatomma tuberculatum, with gifts of sugary secretions. In return, the ants, which could easily eat the caterpillar or its adult butterfly form, defend the vulnerable caterpillars from other predators.

But this friendly give-and-take doesn’t last forever, work by Phillip Torres of Rice University in Houston, Texas and Aaron Pomerantz of the University of Florida, Gainesville, has now revealed. When the caterpillars have become butterflies, they turn on their protectors, plundering the source of their nectar.

This nectar is produced by organs called nectaries at the tips of new bamboo shoots, which are tended by ants. Using their mouthparts, they improve the flow from these nectaries, and stop them from running dry. The nectar is an important source of food for them, so they defend these nectaries fiercely.

Read the full story here at New Scientist. 

Photo credit: Phillip Torres

DJ frogs remix tunes on the hop

Deep in the evergreen forests of Vietnam, curious little green-blooded frogs spend monsoon nights performing vocals, improvising new melodies each time they sing.

Known popularly as “frogs that sing like birds”, male Gracixalus treefrogs perform to attract females and to ward off other males.

But these are not your average frogs, croaking out the same old tunes. Gracixalus frogs shuffle notes to compose a new melody every single time they sing.

To human ears, songs of the three related species – G. quangi, G. supercornutus and G. gracilipes – sound like birds chirping.

They randomly mix high-pitched, long notes called “whistles” with short, sharp “clicks” to compose new tunes.

Each song is unique in its complexity, duration, amplitude, frequency and structure, as opposed to being specific to an individual or a species as it is in most frogs.

Listen to their songs in my story for New Scientist.

Photo credit: Jodi Rowley