Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The ants go marching

There is just something about kids and ants. Bunny has always been fascinated by insects, but ants in particular. I think maybe it's because Bunny and the ants seem to have a lot of the same qualities. Now some of them bite you with formic acid, which thankfully Bunny does not do, but for the most part they are tiny, hard-working and persistent, like my Bunny.

Here is a good example of how much Bunny likes ants. We went on a birding outing in Florida and we saw the endangered Florida Scrub Jay. Super cool right? Well it was, but then Bunny found ants:

Florida Ants! (yes, it was that cold there)

And so then we spent a good 20 minutes with the ants (we still got to see the birds lots though, don't worry).

She goes out on the back rocks at her grandparents place with crackers and raisins and "feeds the ants". She loves watching them dismantle the large pieces to fit it down into the cracks in the rock or work together to lift a raisin and stuff it down a hole. Just the other day I noticed my 2 year old nephew staring intently at a tree. I asked him what he was looking at and he gleefully replied "ANTS!" and Beans and her new friend intently watched ants march around on a rock for a good 15 minutes until the camp bus arrived. So maybe it's genetic.

And here we are looking at Ontario ones

There are more than 12,000 known species of ant in the world but it is estimated that there may be upwards of 20,000 actual species out there. That is a LOT of ants.

But what Bunny wanted to know is how they all work together. When she puts a piece of triscuit down on the rock - how do they find it, know who is carrying what side or whether it's too big to fit in the hole. Can they "talk" to each other?

Busy dismantling

So, to answer that we need to know a bit about ant social structure. Ants have a queen and her job is to lay eggs. That's it, she doesn't get to order other ants around or get fanned while eating grapes. Eggs, eggs and more eggs. It's an important job because the future of the colony rests on her eggs. Then there are male ants - in many colonies, they also have one purpose. Mating. Then they can die. Yeah, male ants don't do much. The colony itself is run by the worker ants, who are wingless females that never reproduce. They get the food, care for the eggs and baby ants, build the nest, protect the nest and generally do everything. So chances are, all those ants you see out there are girls.

They found the hidden popcorn!
Now, all the worker ants are out there running around, they need to tell each other stuff. Important stuff like if anteaters are coming or if kids are putting triscuits near their nest. They do this with a combo of pheromones (chemical signals), sound and touch. They leave trails on the ground which other ants can pick up using their antennae, which are sensitive enough to figure out the direction and strength of the scent. So say one of them finds a triscuit - it leaves a trail back to the nest which all the other ants then follow back to the triscuit, then as they carry the pieces back they keep remarking the trail. If you put a rock in the way they will scatter and then whoever finds the food again makes a new trail back to the other ants, allowing them to adapt to change really well. Some ants also produce sounds using their mandibles that can be used to call for help and some ants when crushed send out a pheromone attack signal. 

So a plea from Bunny - please don't squish your ants, sit down and watch them instead. Build them a bridge or a puzzle to figure out. Maybe give them a snack.

If you've got awhile and a cup of tea, here's a great talk about ants:

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Bats (for Aunt Mary)

My Aunt Mary has some mixed feelings about bats.

I'm not going to try to convince her to invite them in for tea or anything, but I thought I'd write her up a blog post about bats for two reasons. One - bats are a really important part of the ecosystem (which she knows, but just doesn't want them in her house - which is fair enough) and Two - I can post lots of bat pictures which she will just love (this is sarcasm by the way). Really it's a win-win (it's ok, my family has that type of humour).

Just to get us started!
pic from here

On our trip to Wisconsin (where Aunt Mary is) we did a lot of sitting around the campfire, catching up, reminiscing, singing and telling a lot of humorous stories. It was during one of these fireside gatherings that Aunt Mary told us her true feelings about bats, funnily enough while a large number of them whizzed around above us. The specific story involved the original cottage on their property, which was home to a great number of creatures besides themselves - including some bats. One night there was one flying around indoors but luckily Uncle Al managed to trap it. However, when Aunt Mary went in to the bathroom there he was in all his bat glory, between the window pane and screen, pressed up against the glass, watching her every move. That old cottage has since been replaced and the bats (for the most part) relocated to a snazzy new bat house, so the incidences of house bats has greatly decreased (but maybe my dad heard a few in the soffits, shhhh....).

As with most things in this blog, it'll be fairly Great-Lakes-Region-centric because that's where I am and what I know. And one thing I noticed about the area of Wisconsin we were in is that boy, does it ever look like our area of central Ontario. The plant species, timing and overall ecology were very similar - which makes sense when you consider where we are and where they are happen to be directly across from each other (with a few big lakes in the middle, which makes driving there a bit awkward).

So, bats. They get a bit of a bad rap, what with the whole scrunchy face thing and vampire connections and Beans' hero Batman, while giving a heroic spin on bats, still plays up the whole darkness and living in a cave thing. But bats here are insectivores, preying quite a bit on mosquitoes - so they are quite handy to have around on a spring or summer evening around a campfire.

I invite Aunt Mary and you to meet our local bats:

The largest bat we have is the Hoary Bat, which means frosted (like hoar-frost) because it has white-tipped hairs. They are tree dwellers and because they are larger they eat larger insects - like dragonflies, beetles, and moths.

Big Brown Bats are also here (and the majority of Canada). They are hibernators, so they are here year round in mines and caves. 

Little Brown Bats (such creative names...) are the most common bat in Canada. 

Northern Long-eared Myotis. Another cave hibernator.

Red Bat. A solitary bat which migrates south in groups in the fall and winter. This one roosts in trees and shrubs in the winter.

Silver-haired Bat. Looks a bit like the Hoary, but is dark brown with white "frosting" on the back and abdomen. A forest dweller in southern Canada and roosts in logs or under bark. It likes to eat moths and migrates south in winter.

Tri-coloured Bat (Eastern Pipistrelle) is the smallest bat we have and is multicoloured - grey, yellow and brown. Another cave hibernator.

Eastern Small-footed Myotis is another little guy and the least common we have here in Canada. It's a late hibernator and has a slow, erratic flight. 

All bat mugshots were borrowed from here: http://www.batcon.org/ - they have lots of species listed as well as ranges, so you could find some bats near you.

Super Awesome BAT Facts:
  • Bats are the only flying mammal in the world. Others can glide but no one else can do sustained flight.
  • Bats can live up to 20-30 years.
  • The smallest bat in the world is Kitti's Hog-nosed Bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) aka the "bumblebee bat" from Thailand and Burma. At 29 to 33 mm in length and weighing in at a teensy 2g it may also be the worlds smallest mammal!
  • The largest bats in the world are the Flying Foxes, with wingspans reaching 2m. They belong to the aptly named "megabat" suborder and eat nectar, pollen and fruit. They do not use echolocation like their "microbat" counterparts.

Kitti's Hog-nosed Bat
Spectacled Flying Fox
  • There are three species of vampire bats, which do indeed exist on blood. The common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), the hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata), and the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi). All three species range from Mexico to BrazilChile, and Argentina.
  • A brown bat can catch up to 1,200 insects an hour.
  • There are 1,100 species of bats in the world.
  • Bats have only one pup a year.
  • Insectivore bats hunt by ecolocation - they produce sound waves that bounce off of their surroundings and help them navigate and locate prey. 
If after all that you still remain unconviced on the awesomeness of bats (although I don't see how you could), here is a lovely video of them catching moths in slow motion. Plus the second guys ears are fabulous!

Now for the sad PSA part of this post. There is a virus that is killing North American bats. It's called white-nosed syndrome (WNS) and is already responsible for millions of bat deaths. It is found in cave hibernating bats and is easily spread through the close quarters over the winter months. It causes them to have erratic behaviour and wake from hibernation - essentially starving them to death. Believed to have originated and spread by recreational cave exploration in the north-eastern US, it's now a serious problem that may wipe out some of these species. Please don't visit caves with bats (which is stressful for them anyway) and if you do please clean and disinfect all equipment before going to another cave. And report all sightings of WNS or unusual bat behaviour (links for more information below).

And now everyone together: 

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
 How I wonder what you're at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea tray in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! 
How I wonder what you're at!
-Lewis Carroll 

Where we learned about bats:

More on WNS: