Monthly Archives: January 2009

Bullet Ant

Kingdom Animalia is rife with misleading common names. For instance, the electric eel is not an eel but a fish (albeit a high-voltage one). Meanwhile, jellyfish are not fish, nor are they are made of jelly or jam or marmalade or even preserve – sadly, ‘jellyfish’ are mostly tentacles and painful nematocyst stingers, making the majority of species a very poor companion to English muffins. Up on dry land, the lies persist: badgers rarely nag or impose upon the other woodland creatures; the tarantula hawk is neither a predatory bird with eight talons nor a giant flying spider (it’s a wasp); and the Great Dane is, in reality, just pretty good and is actually of German extraction (the accent tends to creep back after it’s had a few too many cocktails).

 

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I’m sorry, my napkin ist gefallen. Now vat vere you sayink?

All of this is frustrating, confusing, and enough to make us all want to start smoking again. But what to do? Well all of us could make a collective decision to employ Linnaeus’ clunky Genusspecies binomial nomenclature system in everyday conversation. And sure, that would eliminate the problem of misleading animal names. But it almost doubles the number of names to remember. What’s more, the movement would certainly lose steam the first time someone at the beach spotted a large dorsal fin tearing through the water and yelled, ‘Carcharodon carcharias!’ – and then watched in erudite horror as children continued to splash around and their parents avoided eye contact with what they assumed to be a crazy Italian tourist.

 

Then, of course, the killing would begin.

 

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I strongly support use of the binomial naming system.

 

So like it or not – for good reason or not – we’re stuck with the oft-perplexing common names.

The bullet ant (Paraponera clavata, lit. ‘Anaphylactic shock and awe’) of Central and South America falls into a very specific category of common names that are at first misleading (‘Hmmm, it doesn’t look like a bullet…I wonder if maybe it’s fast like a bullet?’), but which then makes immediate sense when you realize you’ve been absentmindedly standing on its nest this whole entire time (‘Oh…it hurts like a bullet…okay okay…I think I get it now’).

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Sorry for the confusion. I wanted to be called The Wicked Sting Pain Machine.

The bullet ant is so named because the long, retractable syringe on its abdomen injects an incredibly painful neurotoxic peptide, poneratoxin, and it is poneratoxin that makes the bullet ant the stuff of legend among entomologists and myrmecologists.1 Just how painful is a bullet ant’s poneratoxin? Well, in simple layman’s terms, it hurts like [EXPLETIVE DELETED]. More scientifically stated, it tops the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, coming in at 4.0+ on a scale of 1 to 4, which means that the pain of a bullet ant sting is literally off the charts, and makes one wonder if the Schmidt Sting Pain Index could use some revising.2 In its present form, the Schmidt Sting Pain Index is the brainchild of Justin Schmidt, an entomologist who subjected himself to the bites and stings of horrible insects in his very favorite taxonomic order, Hymenoptera (mainly wasps, bees and ants), in an effort to classify the pain numerically and get his picture in Pointless Weekly.3 And though it found overnight success among entomologists, the insect pain scale never found a foothold in popular culture, and the great Muhammad Ali is never described as a pugilist who could ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a 2.54 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.’

 

Schmidt characterized the sting of a single bullet ant as ‘pure, intense, brilliant pain’ and suggested (from self-imposed experience) that it was about 30 times more painful than the sting of a common wasp. And so, the bullet ant holds the title of both world’s most hurtful insect and the world’s most hurtful invertebrate, while Schmidt himself remains ranked as the coolest entomologist in the cafeteria.

 

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‘Did I tell you that I let a bumblebee sting the inside of my nose? Because I did.’

It turns out, however, that long before Schmidt and his pain experiments, the Satere-Mawe tribesman of Brazil were well aware of the kind of pain available from the bullet ants. Sure, they lack the science to isolate the poneratoxin and identify its precise effect on nervous tissue, but they do have the good old common sense to collect the ants, drug them with a natural anesthetic and weave them by the hundreds into thatched gloves for their young aspiring warriors to wear for ten minutes (a process repeated up to twenty times over the course of their initiation) rendering their hands into burning, throbbing useless masses of excruciating torture that lasts for hours and hours. The Satere-Mawe still perform this rite of passage to this day, leading the first Satere-Mawe warriors to witness a cowboy-themed Bar Mitzvah in the San Fernando Valley to wonder if their own rite of passage didn’t leave some room for improvement.

Aside from a mind-bending sting, bullet ants are huge (for an ant), with workers reaching up to one inch in length, making them the largest ant in the world. And opposite their abdominal stinger, these predatory/scavenging insects sport oversized mandibles that offer prey such as termites the choice of death by neurotoxic peptide or a giant pair of organic pliers.  Indignant termites will often ridicule this proposition as an ‘either-or fallacy’ or a ‘false dilemma,’ pointing out that they also have the option to escape, though they rarely complete the thought.

 

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Suffice it to say, the bullet ant has had little success with online personals.

Given the bullet ant’s small-animal-big-sting persona, Animal Review is willing to overlook its somewhat misleading common name (along with a stern admonition that it could be clearer; might we suggest a simple prefix like ‘Neurotoxic’ or ‘Excruciating’ – or both?).  The fact is, the bullet ant carries the most painful sting of any insect – so painful that simply wearing a glove filled with hundreds of bullet ants twenty times is apparently enough to make you into a warrior (though more than a few Satere-Mawe initiates are said to realize that getting their hands stung by ants doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with winning wars, anyway, and instead opt for vocational school).  The only real issue holding back Paraponera clavata is that, after all is said and done, it is still an ant, and nobody ever gets too excited about ants4.

GRADE: B+

 

1 Not to mention the occasional cosmetologist who sits down on a tree stump in a Nicaraguan forest to reapply her lipstick.

 

2 You first.

 

3 The Schmidt Sting Pain Index is not to be confused with the Schmidt Sting Pain Scale, which Justin Schmidt developed to classify the terrible progression of Gordon Sumner’s complete discography.  Schmidt ranked the October 2006 release ‘Songs from the Labyrinth’ at 3.8, describing it as ‘hot, smoky, searing agony. Even for $6.99.’

4 Except myrmecologists.

 

Garden Snail

The garden snail (Helix aspersa, lit. ‘three-dimensional corkscrew-shaped appetizer’) is a terrestrial mollusk that never really figured out how to get positive results from Evolution. In defense of the snail, that’s not an easy task, because Evolution is a manic-depressive genius and famously difficult to work with on anything. Plus the garden snail kept catching Evolution in its ‘experimental’ periods.

When confronted by the same complicated problems, epoch after epoch, Evolution produces a host of different solutions (there are ten unique plans for the eye, each designed when Evolution went off its meds). These tend to range from the breathtaking to the absurd (again, depending on Evolution’s mood at the time). Unfortunately for H. aspersa, Evolution was on what it was certain was a creative (though also quite likely chemically-influenced) high when it decided to make the garden snail’s Big Three – Sensory Organs, Locomotion, and Reproduction – and the result of its three-day all-nighter was somehow all at once both far too much – and yet not nearly enough.

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Apparently Evolution just broke up with its girlfriend.

Here’s a tip: when Evolution suddenly gets up, locks itself in the bathroom and turns on the shower so you can’t hear it sobbing in Latin – that’s not the time to get in the Eye Line, at least not if you’re hoping for complex, autofocusing, mammalian eyes with a large dynamic contrast ratio and a nice, roomy, dedicated visual cortex for data processing. However, if you are in the Eye Line at that point, there are at least even odds that you end up with light-sensitive™ eyestalks openly purchased from Wal-Mart as ‘found art’ that Evolution keeps declaring its latest ‘masterpiece.’

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‘Say…you didn’t keep the receipt by any chance?’

Complementing its flimsy, cheap, light-sensing ‘eyes’ (assembly required, batteries not included, online .pdf manual impossible to find and poorly translated1), Evolution then decided to dedicate H. aspersa’s remaining two face-based tentacles to touch and smell, though precisely why is anyone’s guess (just nobody ask). As pleased as Evolution was with this creative choice, the design ended up a case study on the dangers of placing too much faith in one’s genius, as the typical snail just ends up confused as to which of the four tentacles to use in which situation, and it’s not infrequent that these animals stick an eye into a carton of milk to smell if it’s gone bad. To paraphrase the words of Evolution’s former business manager, it’s just too much for no reason at all.

Locomotion in the snail begat another moment of creative turpitude for Evolution. Bored with what it kept lambasting as ‘pedestrian’ modes of transit, such as walking, flying or zipping around via jet propulsion (already ‘played out’ in the snail’s sophisticated mollusc cousin, the squid), Evolution gave snails what seems to be some kind of deeply ironic commentary about some social issue that none of us will ever really understand.2 Anyway, whatever Evolution’s bigger point in its work, snails are left to get around town by sliding their single ‘foot’ over a trail of their own mucous, meaning that the garden snail tops out around 23 iph (inches per hour) at full throttle with snot boosters set to max. Suffice it to say, this marked the low-point for Evolution’s career, as even the Arts section of the New York Times offered only measured praise, prompting Evolution to cancel its subscription for two weeks and causing a minor sensation around Manhattan that ended when the newspaper’s ombudsman wrote an apology.

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‘Anyone wanna swap for a pair of legs?  Don’t bother answering – I’m also deaf.’

A complete creative nadir was reached with Evolution’s indefensible choices for the garden snail for sexual reproduction. First of all, it made all of them hermaphrodites, but that wasn’t ‘new’ enough, apparently. When two garden snails contemplate reproduction one of them initiates the act by injecting the other with a mystery mucous (of course) using what scientists call a ‘love dart.’ After the unveiling of the ‘love dart’ to a capacity crowd at its gallery, Evolution noticed that most of them were either confusedly staring at said love dart and/or quietly picking at their hors d’œuvres. After a long, uncomfortable pause and some polite clapping, someone had the temerity to ask if the love dart was a metaphor for a collectivized Oedipus Complex. Well, everyone got the answer to that question when Evolution threw its champagne in the questioner’s face and stomped out of the room.

It was a long time before answers could be had, as soon thereafter Evolution stopped giving interviews. But in March of 2006, some researchers at Canada’s famed McGill University in Montreal did an experiment in which they cut off some snails’ love darts3 and proceeded to inject one group with saltwater and the other with the mystery mucous. They found that the mystery mucous delivered by love darts actually doubles a snail’s potential to produce offspring. In short, Evolution wasn’t completely off – just mostly. And in point of fact, it also turns out that snail researchers also double their chances of not mating simply by performing snail research.

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‘Darts, huh? You know, this reminds me of my research in snail reproduction. I’ve found that control groups injected with saline sol…Desiree, wait…where are you going?’

Snails are, in short, a mess. They’re tragically underwhelming in their complexity, and they make clear that even the best natural selectors make bad choices. And since nobody else seems willing to say it: Sorry, Evolution – you screwed up on this one.

GRADE: D-

1 The English version of the garden snail’s online light-sensing eyestalk manual instructs it to ‘Insert Cornea tab A1 into Retina slot B3 and take 16mm screw please include to fassen (sic) to Optic Nerve.’ And then for no clear reason it switches to German. What a mess.

2 The DNA blueprints for even the finest snot propulsions systems are so ridiculous that most ribosomes simply refuse to translate them into proteins.

3 It’s cool – they grow back.