Paranormal biofantasy: zombie ants, hungry vampires

Paul Raven @ 18-08-2010

I pretty much never talk about the “paranormal romance” or “urban fantasy” tropes here at Futurismic, partly because they rarely say much about the real future in anything more than very vague metaphorical terms (the ubiquity of the shambling undead as a symbol of the subliminal horror of a greying society where the elderly prey on the financial vitality of the young and healthy?), and partly because talking about vampires and zombies and werewolves in the genre blogosphere is a bit like whispering your shopping list in the mosh-pit at a Slayer gig.

But put the roots of those tropes into some sort of scientific context, and I’m all over it like the tribal tattoo on an ass-kicking heroine’s lower back. So, ladies and gentlemen: zombie ants. Zombie ants that have been mind-controlled by a parasitic fungus for nearly fifty million years.

The finding shows that parasitic fungi evolved the ability to control the creatures they infect in the distant past, even before the rise of the Himalayas.

The fungus, which is alive and well in forests today, latches on to carpenter ants as they cross the forest floor before returning to their nests high in the canopy.

The fungus grows inside the ants and releases chemicals that affect their behaviour. Some ants leave the colony and wander off to find fresh leaves on their own, while others fall from their tree-top havens on to leaves nearer the ground.

The final stage of the parasitic death sentence is the most macabre. In their last hours, infected ants move towards the underside of the leaf they are on and lock their mandibles in a “death grip” around the central vein, immobilising themselves and locking the fungus in position.

OK, so the fate of rainforest bugs and freaky fungi may not seem all that existentially terrifying, but symbiosis occurs elsewhere – remember toxoplasma, the cat parasite that may (be sure to emphasise the ‘may’) be responsible for human neurotic behaviour patterns?

And in deepest darkest Peru, no one is finding vampirism sparkly and smoulderingly attractive (yet strangely supportive of Christianised notions of sexual abstinence and submissive femininity): swarms of vampire bats are on the rampage, and have attacked more than 500 people. The only immortality that bite is going to give you is a third page sidebar in your local paper as the first person to die of rabies in living memory.


Biomimicry in computer security: ants vs. worms

Paul Raven @ 28-09-2009

ant headWe have a tendency to name software entities after biological creatures whose behaviours they remind us of – think of viruses in general, or worms. Now a bunch of computer security geeks are coming from the other direction, taking inspiration from nature’s creatures for the next weapon in the never-ending war against malware and viruses… few species are more effective at responding to intrusions into their system than the ant, after all. [via SlashDot; image by CharlesLam]

Unlike traditional security devices, which are static, these “digital ants” wander through computer networks looking for threats, such as “computer worms” – self-replicating programs designed to steal information or facilitate unauthorized use of machines. When a digital ant detects a threat, it doesn’t take long for an army of ants to converge at that location, drawing the attention of human operators who step in to investigate.

The concept, called “swarm intelligence,” promises to transform cyber security because it adapts readily to changing threats.

“In nature, we know that ants defend against threats very successfully,” explains Wake Forest Professor of Computer Science Errin Fulp, an expert in security and computer networks. “They can ramp up their defense rapidly, and then resume routine behavior quickly after an intruder has been stopped. We were trying to achieve that same framework in a computer system.”

[…]

“Our idea is to deploy 3,000 different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat,” Fulp says. “As they move about the network, they leave digital trails modeled after the scent trails ants in nature use to guide other ants. Each time a digital ant identifies some evidence, it is programmed to leave behind a stronger scent. Stronger scent trails attract more ants, producing the swarm that marks a potential computer infection.”

Let’s just hope it takes the black-hat kids a long time to code up a software aardvark, eh?


GPS for ants (and maybe other animals, too)

Paul Raven @ 21-05-2009

Giant bulldog ant; GPS available as optional upgradeLike many naturalists, I’ve always been fairly fascinated by ants – their industrious sense of purpose, their ability to collaborate as a single metaorganism, and so on. Greater minds than myself have often wondered how they navigate over wide areas so effectively, and now an answer has been unearthed: ant antennae incorporate magnetic minerals that may form part of an insectoid GPS system. [image by Arthur Chapman]

“The incorporation of minerals probably starts as soon as ants start getting in touch with soil,” she added, explaining to Discovery News that her team found ultra fine-grained crystals of magnetic magnetite, maghemite, hematite, goethite, and aluminum silicates in ant antennae. These particles could make a “biological compass needle” that drives ant GPS.

[…]

Our planet is magnetized, likely due to rotational forces of liquid iron in Earth’s core. Although the resulting magnetic field is one-twenty thousandth as strong as a refrigerator magnet, ants appear to “perceive the geomagnetic information through a magnetic sensor (the dirt particles), transduce it in a signal to the nervous system and then to the brain,” she said.

Not all ants may use this particular system. Desert ants, for example, appear to have evolved special eyes that detect skylight polarization, which they then use to find their way around their sandy habitat. Magnetic particles, however, have been detected in many fish, birds, butterflies, flies, bees, bats, mole rats, newts, sea turtles and spiny lobsters, suggesting these animals find their way like the Brazilian ants do.

Ain’t nature wonderful?

I wonder if perhaps we humans have  a similar ability lying dormant in our bodies, shoved aside by evolutionary pressures as unnecessary since we stopped being roaming bands of primates and began to settle in stable locations. Perhaps it could be reawakened, or simply installed from scratch by some deft ribofunk biohacking? Imagine a post-fuel future where we have an entire and recently re-greened planet to roam on foot – how wonderful to set out with no map besides the tiny magnets buried in your brain!


Traffic control learns lessons from leafcutter ants

Paul Raven @ 06-02-2009

leafcutter ants on the jobNature’s still got plenty to teach us, it seems. The latest target for researchers seeking to improve traffic congestion is the routing behaviour of leafcutter ants:

When opposing streams of leafcutter ants share a narrow path, they instinctively alternate flows in the most efficient way possible. Studying how ants manage this could provide the basis for a system of driverless cars running on ant traffic algorithms.

Driverless is probably the key word there… and there’s a short story just waiting to be written! One about an abandoned future-city with a tireless transit system of ant-AIs driving empty vehicles in ever-more efficient cycles. Sounds like a job for Paul Di Filippo, maybe. [image by MacAllenBrothers]