A little over a week ago, media reported on a 50-mile wide swarm of flying ants over the UK, which looked like rain on the radar. But they’re not the only insects that take to the sky. This neat cartoon explains the multi-layered high way that insects use to get around. Even spiders! The record flyer got as high as 5791 m (19000 ft).
One good thing about finishing your PhD and then going into COVID-19 lockdown is that you suddenly find a lot of time to read. This meant I finally finished the Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. Like many others who have finished this tome, I feel I deserve a fanfare.
This book has been on my to-read list since 2016. I have picked it up multiple times, and I have put it back down again, forgetting about it for ages. Starting over. Now that I’ve finally finished it, I’m not sure why it took me so long. Yes, it’s a long book. 625 pages, if you don’t count the glossary, author’s notes, acknowledgements etc., which bring it to 702. But it’s full of interesting content, even if it does get a little length at times.
I was first asked to read it for a biogeography class and if you’re interested in biogeography, especially island biogeography, this is probably the best book you will ever read.
Perhaps one of my favourite things about this book, not counting the easy introduction to concepts such as species-area relationships, viable populations and the SLOSS (single large or several small) debate, is that Quammen gives a unique insight into the lives of scientists. The passion that makes a scientist chase after monkeys to catch their poo. The hurt a scientist can feel when their study area is destroyed in the name of progress. The politics they can be faced with, and sometimes the drama that can arise when scientists disagree.
The book contains a lot of information. You may not find all of it equally interesting, but I couldn’t tell you any parts that you might consider skipping. When Quammen talks about his personal travels in the footsteps of naturalists such as Alfred Russell Wallace, you feel closer to the story. Do we need the part where Quammen relates his experience of being mugged? It doesn’t tell us much about island biogeography, but it tells us something about situations scientists, explorers and journalists can get themselves into when pursuing their passions.
This book could easily be a textbook, but it’s way more enjoyable. It makes you want to explore and travel, see these wonderful places and animals before they are gone. I will probably not read the entire thing again, but I will most likely return to some of my favourite sections.
If I loved it so much, why don’t I give it five stars? Because of the length. During normal times, I’m not sure I would have had the discipline to finish it. This may not be Quammen’s fault, but my own. I am too easily distracted and usually read multiple books at the same time.
On March 13th I came back from vacationing in Costa Rica to a Denmark in lockdown. The virus SARS-CoV-2 was spreading across the world. On June 15th I was among the last in Denmark to be allowed to return to the office after three months of working from home. Three months of intently following the development. How many dead today? How many hospitalized? How many on ventilators? How is Denmark doing compared to other countries? Is R0 less than 1? Is it more? Are we over the worst of it yet? When will it end? Will there be a vaccine?
I am not the only one to have asked myself these questions. We probably all have. Upon returning to the office, I read “How Contagion Works” (DK: I smittens tid. It: Nel contagion) by Paolo Giordano. He puts in writing many of the emotions and thoughts we all have shared. Why must we self-isolate? Why must we suffer deprivation? I recommend this little book if you want a catalyst to reflect upon the pandemic and remember some of the answers to these why-questions.
Paolo Giordano’s book has a chapter on the role of experts and the expectations we have of them. “The most sacred part of science is the truth” he quotes Simone Weil (who I now add to my reading list). In the time of contagion, science has disappointed us, he says. We wanted certainty, but all we got were opinions. We forgot that this is how it always works. That this is the only way it works. That for science doubt is more important than truth. I quote Hugh Walpole: “In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last.” But when we are amid a pandemic, when lives are at stakes, are scientists allowed the luxury of errors?
“In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last.”Hugh Walpole
Throughout the history of science, errors have been made. Errors are an important part of science when they are made in good faith. When they are not, they are labelled scientific misconduct. See for example 20 of the Greatest Blunders in Science in the Last 20 Years. When talking about scientific misconduct in Denmark, Milena Penkowa is usually the first person that comes to mind. When talking about scientific misconduct in the time of contagion, the debate about the effects of hydroxychloroquine comes to mind. Scientific papers have been retracted from both the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine due to suspicions of misconduct. These suspicions were based on an investigation by the Guardian and the failure of an independent follow-up peer review. The retracted Lancet paper halted global trials of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19. These trials have now been restarted. But have we lost valuable time?
With these thoughts in mind, I have a new-found appreciation for the peer-review process and the open data movement. I have the deepest respect for the scientists that are working on developing vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. And I am happy that at least the lives of humans, do not critically depend on my research.
Two years ago I was asked to be a consulting expert on a new documentary about Denmark’s nature. The title was Wild, wonderful Denmark (Vilde, vidunderlige Danmark). When I was a child I would sometimes borrow my dad’s video camera and make small nature documentaries and I had once dreamed of being the next David Attenborough. Participating as a consultant on a big national documentary is probably the closest I will ever get. The first episode aired last Sunday, and to my delight it was the one about forests – the one where I had consulted on the amazingness of wood ants. They even included me in a small behind the scenes clip. About 4 minutes after the first epsiode had ended, the debate and critique of it started on social media. There were many critics but also many fans. The criticism:
- Too much dramatic music
- Too much slow-motion
- Boring speaker
- Not enough information about the actual status of Danish nature
- Visually appealing. Great with slow-motion and close ups
- Beautiful music
- Lars Mikkelsen (narrator) was great
- Interesting and easy introduction to nature
Basically it sounded like it boiled down to whether or not you were a nature expert/enthusiast already and whether or not you like that documentaries have a high entertainment-factor. I went through the program again, listening for specific content. In one hour, Lars Mikkelsen (narrator) mentions the change of forests through time (from primary forest, to almost no forest, to new forest), stressing that today’s forest is nowhere near as diversity rich as our old forest used to be. There is less dead wood, less water, less species. He gets around food chains, reintroduction of species, mating and competition. There are close-ups of a hare’s ear dangling from the beak of an eagle, insects wriggling on thorns, speared by red-backed shrikes. There’s a dead fox next to the road. There’s a tree falling in the middle of the forest. To me it seems more real than many other nature documentaries I’ve seen.
Close-ups of a hare’s ear dangling from the beak of an eagle…
One thing that came up though, which I had not myself considered, was the debate about using tame animals. I didn’t know they had. The ants we filmed were definitely not tame, and nothing was staged in those clips. But looking at the final footage it is rather obvious. How else do you get a camera on the back of a golden eagle? How else do you happen to be at the right place at the right time when a fox comes close to a roe deer fawn? It is possible to get the natural shot, but it might require ten years of filming, not too. But…
is using tame animals cheating?
This has apparently been an on-going debate. Nature documentary experts BBC also uses tame animals.
This blog by UntamedScience on Wildlife film ethics is a good introduction to the important role documentary filmmakers have. They are responsible for showing us nature in a way we will probably never be able to experience it ourselves, they add a story to it. Mostly, we believe this story to be the truth.
Filmmakers have to be honest about how the footage was acquired and ensure no harm comes to the wildlife. Catching a wild golden eagle to put a camera on its’ back would most likely be stressful to the eagle. But is it okay to use a tame eagle? This will be a bird kept by a falconeer and the debate on the ethics of falconeering is even more heated than the debate on using tame animals for wildlife documentaries. Some discussion on the topic of the ethics of falconeering can be found in this blog by Feathered Photography. I’m not sure where I stand on this. I’m generally a trusting person, and believe that the film crew have done their job, with guidance from many experts, not just me. I guess, as with everything in life, we always have to ask our selves “Does this feel wrong or questionable?” If yes, then it probably is. But what is most wrong, stalking and stressing wildlife for a few minutes of footage, or using tame animals to illustrate nature?
if it feels wrong or questionable then it probably is.
Wrapping up, I’m excited to see the next episode on Sunday, which is about the ocean and coastline. There are not (m)any documentaries on Danish nature, and I hope this one will inspire more people to experience it and appreciate it.
One of my biggest hopes for the future is that citizen science, and perhaps especially participatory monitoring becomes an integrated part of every community. With a little help from scientists, I believe that anyone can help monitor the status of biodiversity and the introduction of new species. By actively becoming involved, I hope this will also result in an increased appreciation of nature and biodiversity.
When school children discovered a new species of ant for Denmark while participating in the citizen science project the Ant Hunt (DK: Myrejagten) I was delighted. Building on this discovery, we turned the experience into a scientific paper which was recently published in PeerJ.
The species Tetramorium immigrans was found in the Botanical Garden of the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Based on this find and data from across Denmark and Europe we compared the ecological niche of T. immigrans with its’ sister species T. caespitum finding T. immigrans to prefer warmer temperatures and to be more prevalent in cities.
The study is a neat little example illustrating that even children can help monitor biodiversity and the introduction of exotic species. Especially because new introductions are likely to happen in areas of high human population densities.
Below is a small film by a former intern Birk (at the time an 8th grader/~14 years old). The film is a little story of setting up the Ant Hunt in an urban area. Birk spent a week with me doing field- and labwork. I think his film nicely captures how even going to a city park can be an exciting research expedition which might lead to new and exciting discoveries.
One of the fun things about being a scientist and science communicator is that you sometimes get exciting questions that you can’t answer immediately. These questions can easily send you down a rabbit hole of scientific papers that you emerge from several hours later. I got one of these questions yesterday:
“Is it a myth or fact that ant bites can cure certain diseases?”
This person had seen a TV program where a person spent several hours sitting bare-bummed on an ant nest because they claimed ant bites could cure arthritis and other joint diseases. While I know army ants can be used as stitches, I have never heard of ants curing any diseases. However, a lot of research is focusing on the nutritional and medicinal properties of insects (a big part of Ethnoentomology).
This required some research! Quick googling confirms that there may be something to the story and that scientific studies are indeed looking into the medicinal properties of ants.
Ancient medicinal practices with ants
Examples of the traditional medicinal uses of ants abound. Rastogi (2011) provides 21 examples from across Africa, Australia, China, India, Latin America, Myanmar and Thailand. In China, Tibet and Morocco ants have been used as a health food and drink ingredient to cure arthritis, hepatitis and lethargy. Among the different common practices of using insects as medicine in China are consuming the entire insect body, eating the eggs, eating the nests and eating insect secretions (we do that too – it’s called honey).
Apparently, eating fistfuls of live Pogonomyrmex (red harvester ants) on an empty stomach can induce vivid hallucinations. This has been reported in spiritual ceremonies in indigenous communities in California, but I don’t recommend testing this as it also induces prolonged catatonic states.
SO WHAT IS IT ABOUT ANTS THAT MAY BE SO BENEFICIAL?
The main theory seems to be that the health effects of the ant species Polyrhachis lamellidens are due to them containing some anti-inflammatory and pain-killing substances. Specifically, at least two polyketides have been identified in ants that are also found in plants, fungi and bacteria and have shown promise in studies for fighting arthritis, bacterial infections, and a variety of other diseases. A partially purified extract of an ant venom from the South American tree ant Pseudomyrmex sp. has shown some promises towards reducing joint pain and swelling of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Besides the possible benefits of ants themselves, ants may also be a new source of antibiotics.
Will any ant do?
Probably not. The current tally is that there are around 16,000 species of ants worldwide. In Denmark, one of the closest related species to Polyrhachis lamellidens is Camponotus herculeanus, the Hercules ant. So if you do want to test the theory yourself, maybe start with this species. But, as this little episode of the show Bidt, brændt og stukket (bitten, burnt and stung) illustrates, sitting in an ant nest is no picnic. Camponotus herculeanus mainly nests in wood and is Denmark’s biggest ant. I’d keep my bum away from it.
While lots of more or less scientific experimentation is going on, there seems to still be some way to go before ants become a standard drug. When they do, or if indeed they already are, they will like be a part of some little anonymous white pill and you will never know that what you are ingesting came from an ant. A shame really.
For now, I’ll stick with my ant gin and a joke that it’s healthy. I’d recommend you stick with your doctor’s recommendations too.
- Altman, R. D., Schultz, D. R., Collins‐Yudiskas, B., Aldrich, J., Arnold, P. I., Arnold, P. I., & Brown, H. E. (1984). The effects of a partially purified fraction of an ant venom in rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis & Rheumatism: Official Journal of the American College of Rheumatology, 27(3), 277-284.
- Blackburn, T. (1976). A query regarding the possible hallucinogenic effects of Ant ingestion in South-Central California. The Journal of California Anthropology, 3(2), 78-81.
- Costa-Neto, E. M. (2005). Entomotherapy, or the medicinal use of insects. Journal of Ethnobiology, 25(1), 93-114.
- Currie, C. R., Scott, J. A., Summerbell, R. C., & Malloch, D. (1999). Fungus-growing ants use antibiotic-producing bacteria to control garden parasites. Nature, 398(6729), 701-704.
- Dutta, P., Sahu, R. K., Dey, T., Lahkar, M. D., Manna, P., & Kalita, J. (2019). Beneficial role of insect-derived bioactive components against inflammation and its associated complications (colitis and arthritis) and cancer. Chemico-biological interactions, 108824.
- Groark, K. P. (1996). Ritual and therapeutic use of” hallucinogenic” harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex) in native south-central California. Journal of Ethnobiology, 16, 1-30.
- Kou, J., Ni, Y., Li, N., Wang, J., Liu, L., & Jiang, Z. H. (2005). Analgesic and anti-inflammatory activities of total extract and individual fractions of Chinese medicinal ants Polyrhachis lamellidens. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 28(1), 176-180.
- Rastogi, N. (2011). Provisioning services from ants: food and pharmaceuticals. Asian Myrmecology, 4(1), 103-120.
- Tang, J. J., Fang, P., Xia, H. L., Tu, Z. C., Hou, B. Y., Yan, Y. M., … & Cheng, Y. X. (2015). Constituents from the edible Chinese black ants (Polyrhachis dives) showing protective effect on rat mesangial cells and anti-inflammatory activity. Food Research International, 67, 163-168.
- Zimian, D., Yonghua, Z., & Xiwu, G. (1997). Medicinal insects in China. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 36(2-4), 209-220.
I’ve decided to write up small reviews of the books I read, that a I believe are of possible interest to ecologists. Maybe one day it will turn into a list of 10 must read books for ecologists. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt, I, like so many others, read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature. Despite being in the final stages of finishing my PhD, I have to admit I devoured this book. It may be because I also had a broken foot for five weeks, and couldn’t do much except sit around and read. But it was captivating.
Andrea Wulf’s description of Alexander von Humboldt and the many famous people he interacted with, is sure to have you wishing to be transported back in time where the world was still largely unexplored, where salons appear to have been a daily occurrence and the line between science and art was practically nonexistent. Of course you tend to forget about the dysentery, the inapropriate clothing for scaling mountains and the lack of modern comforts, such as flushing toilets. These could perhaps easily be tolerated for the opportunity to be in the company of famous personas like Simón Bolívar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, who all read and were influenced by Humboldt.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) acchieved many things in his life, the least of which was living to age 90. He has multiple geographic places (including mountains, towns, counties, lakes and rivers) and species (including the humboldt penguin and the humboldt squid) named after him. It probably also isn’t far fetched to call him the founder of what we today call macroecology. Through his many travels he noticed similarities between continents, predicted the devastating effects that humans have on nature. The following quote is from a book review published on goodreads by William2, which I think captures mostly everything about the book:
“But his insight into the unplumbed market for science writing is secondary to his real achievement. Humboldt’s revolutionary act was to view nature as a unified force dependent upon myriad interactions and mutual reciprocities, not reduced to mind-numbing categories as taxonomists and other systematists were then doing. Humboldt saw the full ecological impact of forests; therefore, he was the first to warn about deforestation. He saw how greedy cash crops (monoculture), cleared needed forest, leeched the ground of minerals and emptied aquifers, thus touching the fates of countless animal species, including humans. Moreover, he saw the importance of expressing one’s personal emotional responses to nature and he wrote with a passion that repelled some cold men of science, but enlisted scores of readers from all walks of life.”William2 on Goodreads
Most importantly in this quote, is the realisation that, although many say science should be free of emotion, reporting only the facts, scientists may capture scores of new readers (and nature lovers) by expressing their own personal emotional responses to nature. If you need motivation to fall in love with nature (again), read this book. If you are a PhD student in ecology and you’re starting to wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing, read this book.
During December 2015 and January 2016 I participated in an outreach program between Brown University and Lincoln School for girls, which paired female scientific graduate students with AP biology students from Lincoln School. The project was intended to connect the students with young women in the field of scientific research in order to expand their horizons on the many opportunities within STEM.
The students were to conduct personal interviews with their grad students and then create a poster, which was presented to their classmates and all the graduate students during a poster session held at Brown University.
While the project was of course aimed to benefit the Lincoln School students, I felt it a tremendous benefit to myself as well. During the interview I not only got to communicate my scientific interests, but also reflected on the path that had led me to choosing biology as my career when I first applied to college, the various successes and challenges I had encountered and where I thought I would end up in the future.
Between 2010 and 2013 I spent a portion of the summer along the coasts of Denmark; first in Northern Jutland, then in Northern Sealand. Every day I would bring children and grown-ups alike out into the water to look for marine life. We’d search for anything from sea weed to fish, including crabs and prawns. Back on land, I would go over everything we had found. Telling stories to the children about life in the sea, and educating parents about the necessity for sustainable fisheries, decreased pollution and how they might contribute. The children and I would then go on to cooking crab soup, eating snails, mussels and seaweed.
This was one of my first experiences with public engagement and I took to it like a fish to water. There is something truely satisfactory in sharing your passions with children and grown-ups and seeing interest and amazement in their eyes. I had a child, who’s mother told me she was enormously picky about food. It took me five minutes before the girl was asking me to feed her snails. Her mother ended up taking a bag home for dinner.