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giovedì 28 maggio 2015


ants and toilet paper_by sciencemug
by sciencemug
Le formiche della specie Lasius niger, all’interno dei loro nidi, formano strutture che sono vere e proprie toilette dove gli insetti vanno a defecare. Le strutture si chiamano “macchie fecali”.
La scoperta è stata pubblicata sul giornale scientifico PlosOne ed è stata fatta da tre scienziati dell’università tedesca di Regensburg.

Ascolta qui sotto il primo podcast di sciecemug!

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ants and cactus_by sciencemug
by sciencemug
Ants of the species Lasius niger create toilets inside their nests. The structures, where the insects go to defecate, are called “fecal patches”.
The discovery has been made by three scientists of the German university of Regensburg and it’s been reported in a paper published on the open-access science journal PlosOne.

Listen to the first podcast in Eng?ish down here
[HUMAN VOICE or TTS (text-to-speech) voice] 
by sciencemug!


listen to/download 
the human-voice version also
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The following text is that of the podcast (the parts in blue are the ones specific to the "TTS voice" version)

"Ohoooooooh hallooo dear English speaking-thinking-hearing visitor, welcome to the first of my podcasts in Engmark, that is "English-question mark" (i.e. Eng?ish), the kind of language I am using. So, kinda English, but not quite the real deal if you know what I mean, and if you ever read something of this blog, well, you get exactly what I’m talking about.
Soo, apologies for the grammar, the sintax, the pronunciation, for the lack of donuts on the tables of every human being, apologies for the rain that the sky poured the moment you, for the first time, went out with your brand new one zillion bucks/euros/yen/liters-of-blood worthy white sneakers and apologies for the cover-up which prevented the world from knowing the truth about how to win when playing tic-tac-toe against a well educated dodo. Apologies, people, apologies.

Anyway folks, I am sciencemug, the blog which is as lame as any of the far too many episodes of Hawaii-Five-O reboot, and whose IQ is the same of a pineapple under the influence of expired second-hand smart drugs.
Well, to be honest I am sciencemug, yes, but the voice you’re hearing is my avatar’s, the dumb human I got to control thanks to a wireless-voodoo ritual I found in a page of recipes for muffins of ghosts, soups of Easter bunnies and the stew of zombies. It’s a long story…
[Well, to be honest I am sciencemug, yes, but the voice you’re hearing is a second hand cheap text-to-speech voice I got from an old URL from the nineties thanks to a winning bet about the actual connection between the collapse of the slingshots market in the south-east of the Principality of Liechtenstein and the sudden disappearance of the almanacs from the bookstalls of the local markets in Martinica in 1978. Eeeh, it’s a long story… TTS-version]
The dung beetle's wise remark (by sciencemug)
The dung beetle's wise remark (by sciencemug)
Anyway, still here dear English speaking-thinking-listener? Wow, I’m impressed, really!
Ok, then, to reward your patience I’m gonna tell you a story of ants, poop, and toilets!

The story goes like that:
ants of the species Lasius niger create toilets inside their nests. The structures, where the insects go to poop, are called “fecal patches”.
The discovery belongs to three scientists of the German university of Regensburg and it’s been reported in a paper published on the open-access science journal PlosOne.

Tomer J. Czaczkes (oh man, from now on you just become TJ, ‘cause I don’t wanna my avatar dies of a stroke
[my decrepit software-voice crashes TTS-version] for trying to say once again a second name that sounds like the aftermath of an air strike on the alphabet with all the vowels gone slaughtered and the consonants left in an excruciating agony) soo, TJ, Jürgen Heinze and Joachim Ruther house 21 colonies of Lasius niger ants in 21 plaster nests. The colonies are formed by 150-300 adult bugs plus some brood, and all the nests are identical.
The single nest is a cavity 3mm high and it has a central square space, with a side of 1cm, and with each of its corners that opens to a square chamber, with a side of 2cm.

In short: the nest is a compound with 4 chambers all connected via a central open space (and yes dear US listener, I’m proudly using the metric system like the rest of the world, get over it pal!) 

TJ and his lab-mates put each of the 21 nests inside a box which has its sides coated in fluon, you know, fluon is some stuff that makes box’s sides so slippery that even The Amazing Spider-Man wouldn’t be able to climb ‘em, soo… poor little ants
are trapped inside the box. But don’t go call the anti-kidnapping squad of the insect’s police now, ‘cause the over possessive box isn’t that bad for our little bugs, it’s more like a five star resort rather than a dungeon for evil souls and creepy fantasy characters. The box indeed is called “foraging box” since it’s stuffed with ants’ food, that is a source of sugar and a source of proteins.

The sugary thing is a solution of sucrose which is inside a small tube plugged with cotton wool; the proteins are in another tube filled with a mash that contains eggs. Both of types of nourishment are mixed with a non-toxic powdered food colouring (blue or red) that can’t be fully digested by ants which, therefore, poop in technicolor... In white plaster nests… Huu, easy to spot poop!
Anyway, TJ and colleagues take a picture of each nest every week for 2 straight months. Our science fella, then, remove the 21 colonies from their nests and take a final picture of the bugs’ premises.

And then, what our lab guys do? They retire from the lab job to travel the world on board of ants pulled sleighs and they start sending the nests’ pictures they took as the oddest postcards ever with lines like “whish you were here but you wouldn’t fit in, you fatty!” or “happy bugs’ day dear fourth-degree stepcousin whose name I don’t even bother to remember but I had some spare cents so I thought ‘oh, what the hell, I’m gonna send this lousy card to that dude I think is one of my relatives’”.
Nope, sorry, ehe, I got confused… The science trio doesn’t do that. The researchers indeed keep on doing science and start analyzing the nests’ pictures.
Yeah, much better of a version for science and the postcard business this one.

So TJ & his science company discover that 1 to 4 colored patches formed within each of the 21 nests. The researchers count a total of 41 of this spots. And they call ‘em “fecal patches”, since these patches have the same colour of the sugar solution the ants fed on, hence, the patches are made of ants’ feces. And if you wonder why ants’ number two has only the sugar food color and not also the protein food color, well, dear nosy&brainy listener, the answer is that adult ants don’t need to gulp a lot of proteins to carry on (indeed too many amino acids can kill ants), therefore they have very very very tiny bites of protein-based stuff. Sooo, you know, no protein in means no protein, well, out, if you get what I mean…

TJ and friends, besides, find out that the “fecal patches” are made exclusively of poop, and not also of other kind of waste like dead ants, pieces of plaster or cotton wool from the food tubes. This kind of garbage is in fact piled outside the nest. Sooo, since “fecal patches” are poop-only made spots, TJ and his lab mates call ‘em “toilets” ‘cause they are actual restrooms formed inside the nests.

Ants’ toilets’ positions inside the nests aren’t random: the 82% of them (34 out of 41) are in fact at the nest’s chambers’ corners. The bugs’ science fellas think that the toilets’ specific “corner position” is the result of some kind of stigmergy, which is not some sort of witchcraft for teens or a fancy new-age delirium for adults, but instead a form of indirect communication that social insects use to coordinate their activities. It's basically some kind of semi random self-organization that somehow relies on probabilities and can lead to the creation of complex structures like the termite mounds without even the need for a plan or a project to follow. 

So, if you’re desperate to modernize your house but you’re broke and can’t count on the guys of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”, well, dear listener, call the bugs and let them do their stigmergic trick. Or just wait till you have some money to spend. Your call pal!

Time for a commercial break now...

"Are bugs infesting your house with the arrogance of medieval lords and the incivility of brainless reality show celebrities? Are bugs having nasty picnics and smoky cook outs and savage pool parties in your kitchen so that you can’t even enjoy your meals in peace? Are bugs silently taking over your life like your mother in law would only dream of being able to do? Well pal, I’m sorry for you, but you’re seriously screwed, really, nobody can help you, bugs are unbeatable. It’s a fact!
The nest of pizza delivery ant_by sciencemug
"The Nest of Pizza" delivery ant (by sciencemug)
So why don’t you try to make friends with your new bosses the bugs and share a pizza with them? Call 555-the nest of pizza-2313, we make the best pizza for humans and insects in the whole world! “The Nest of Pizza”, and your belly will smile covered in crumbs and happy bugs!"

Sooo, back to the “fecal patches” aka Lasius niger ants’ toilets in the nest.
Research guy TJ and his science crew ask themselves a simple fundamental question: why? Why Lasius niger ants bother so much and invest so much energy to create toilets in their nests?
The first answer that comes to mind is clearly "42" which, when articulated, becomes something like: the answer is hygiene!
You know listener, poop is full of nasty stuff like viruses and bacteria and fungi that can sicken and/or kill you, so if you go number two all around your own house your own house gets full of that nasty sickening stuff and you end up living in a hell of biohazard, you know (well, at least I do hope for you you know it, but if you are not familiar with the bidet, well buddy, I’m seriously worried for ya).

Anyway, back to the hygiene thing. It would seem logic that Lasius niger bugs form restrooms in their nests to confine their feces in limited parts of the nests so to avoid frequent contacts with a potential source of illnesses. But, hahaha! Coup de théâtre dear listener: TJ and science company see that Lasius niger ants don’t bother to avoid their own feces and light-heartedly walk on them like they’re taking a pleasant stroll on a clover field in a sunny day of spring (well, of course without the giant monster and its evil parasites chasing them).

PiPs and the line of ants (by sciencemug)
PiPs and the line of ants (by sciencemug)
So dear hopefully still listening acquaintances, hygiene and biohazard control don’t seem to be the reasons why ants form “fecal patches”/toilets in their moulds.
Lab guys say that maybe this happens because poop, for Lasius niger bugs, is not a bio-threat to get rid of, but -hahaha! Coup de théâtre 2 the return of the crazy blogwriter- but indeed poop, for ants, is a resource to exploit in order to get food.
Larvae and adult ants have indeed very different dietary needs, hence it is possible that the nutrients eaten but not digested by adults are accumulated in the “fecal patches”.
Therefore, researchers say, the feces of the toilets may become food for the larvae, which, like that, would receive the right amount of salt and micronutrients essential for their survival and their development. Aaand right now I’m pretty happy to be a blog and not a human being who believes in reincarnation, ‘cause I'm so positive right now I’ll never be born again as an ant’s larva fed with poop...

Anyway, dear legitimately disgusted podcast worshipper, there’s another less vomit-inducing way by which ants could exploit their own feces as a source of food. They could use the “fecal patches”, the toilets, as vegetable gardens.
The TJs of science indeed see that, once ants are removed from the nests, fungus-like fruiting bodies grow on the toilets. Thus the researchers think that Lasius niger bugs farm these fruiting bodies on their restrooms/gardens spots so to recover otherwise inaccessible nutrients from their own feces.

Soooo, dear great people of the podcast, that's it, at the end of the day the most likely reason why there are toilets inside the nests of Lasius niger ants is that, like this, our funny little filthy wise bugs can have an always fresh truckload of poop to use in a more or less disgusting way.

Aaah, the magic of nature!

That’s it folks, let's wrap it up and say goodbye to this first podcast!
See y'all folks. Well, technically, hear y'all, folks...

- Czaczkes, T. J., Heinze, J., and Ruther, J. (2015). Nest etiquette--where ants go when nature calls. PLoS One 10, e0118376.

- Arganda, S., Nicolis, S. C., Perochain, A., Pechabadens, C., Latil, G., and Dussutour, A. (2014). Collective choice in ants: the role of protein and carbohydrates ratios. J Insect Physiol 69, 19-26.
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