Violin made of ice

This week I learned: battlefield ant triage, unrequited gannet love, ice music

About ants providing medical care for one another after battle; the strange, beautiful tragedy of Nigel the gannet; and an orchestra made of ice.

Ants who treat their injured

Matabele ants are named after the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe (called Matabele by European colonists), who have a fearsome reputation (if perhaps exaggerated for political purposes) for the 19th Century raids they carried out on their Shona neighbours.

The Matabele ants also raid their neighbours – in this case, the termites that make up the entirety of their diet. Rather than take them on in their strongholds – termite mounds – the ants send scouts out to find where the termites feed. Then a raiding party of hundreds of ants descends on the undefended termites, attacking and killing as many as they can before carrying them back to the nest for food.

The fighting is fierce, and inevitably ants are injured as well as termites. Now studies have shown that after a raid, injured ants receive what is, for an ant, sophisticated medical care.

On the battlefield, healthy ants respond to distress pheromones issued by their injured fellows, performing triage to determine which ants are beyond saving and which to bring back to the nest. Ants that have only lost a leg or two are then treated by their nest-mates, though the exact treatment is still unclear. According to behavioural ecologist Erik Frank, “We don’t know if they are just removing dirt from the wound or applying an antimicrobial substance to fight off an infection. But we do know that if they don’t receive the treatment, 80% die within 24 hours. If you allow the treatment for an hour, the ants survive.”

Original source: ‘Paramedic ants’ observed treating injured comrades

Nigel the lonely(?) gannet

Nigel the gannet with concrete friends
Photo used with permission from Friends of Mana Island

This is the sound of a colony of gannets, a seabird species from Australia and New Zealand. Like many seabirds, gannets form large, noisy breeding colonies on islands and coastlines. And like many native species the world over, their lifestyles are threatened by the introduction of pest species.

New Zealand may well be the most ambitious nation in the world when it comes to trying to wipe out the various pest species humans have introduced there. A number of its smaller islands have been declared completely pest free, and on one of these – Mana Island – a false colony of concrete gannets was installed in 1998 in the hope of luring gannets to return to the island after the eradication of the introduced mouse population. Mice might seem harmless, but they are voracious and unfussy eaters and will happily consume bird eggs and even chicks.

For fifteen years, the concrete gannets failed to attract their feathered counterparts. And then, in 2013, Nigel arrived.

Nigel was the first real gannet to live on Mana Island in 40 years. For the next four years, he was also the last. He chose a mate from among the concrete birds and courted her faithfully: building her a nest, preening her stony plumage, and chatting to her. In early 2018 other gannets finally began to arrive on Mana, beginning their own small colony on another part of the island, but Nigel showed no interest in joining them. He stayed true to his chosen mate. And earlier this month, he died beside her, surrounded by concrete birds.

This is the sound of colony Nigel called home. Why did he stay with his concrete friends? Could he truly not tell the different between a chunk of stone and a real bird? Was he lonely, as many of the articles about his death are saying? Was he confused, or frustrated, by the silence of his fellow birds? Or was he happy to live in silence, content in his concrete love? Who are we, desperate anthropomorphisers of the creatures around us, to say?

I don’t have an answer. But this story is staying with me.

Original source: Nigel the lonely gannet dies as he lived, surrounded by concrete birds

Orchestra of ice

Meanwhile, in Sweden, an American ice sculptor called Tim Linhart carves instruments out of ice and holds orchestral concerts through the winter in a specially-designed ice dome.

The instruments – some traditional, others of Linhart’s own invention, are so temperature-sensitive that their tuning is affected by the body heat of the audience, requiring the cavern in which the orchestra plays to be ventilated to channel that warmth away. Even so, the heat of the musicians is enough that the instruments must be regularly re-shaped as their forms begin to melt away.

In spring, frozen concert hall is dismantled, the sets are allowed to melt, and the instruments are stored in freezers until winter returns and they can once more bring forth their music.

People do some amazing things.

Original sources: These Ice Instruments Look as Beautiful as They Sound

Coolest Concert Ever? Hear Ice Instruments Play Beautiful Music (video)

Featured photo by Karin Aberg, reproduced with permission from Ice Music
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