hugabug 12: Carrion flowers

The biggest flower in the world smells like a rotting corpse, which attracts the flies that pollinate it.
Listen to find out how and why.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. Eels, “Flyswatter”
2. Bela Karoli, “Some things that fly there be”
3. Tin Hat Trio & Tom Waits, “Helium reprise”
4. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

— — — — —

Imagine the fragrance of a dense jungle full of colorful flowers. Now imagine the smell of death. That’s the stench of the biggest flower in the world. It’s called Rafflesia, and it smells like a rotting corpse.

You know who loves Rafflesia? Bugs. Flies, most often. The kind of flies that like the smells that nauseate people. The kind of flies that eat poop and lay their eggs in rotting flesh.

Rafflesia depends on flies for pollination. Yet Rafflesia does not reward its pollinators for the favor. No, it fools flies into visiting by mimicking the stench, appearance, and even the temperature of a rotting animal carcass.

The Rafflesia flower is so big that you really could stumble on it as you hike through Sumatra or the Philippines. It’s huge–3 feet across, from petal to petal. Perhaps even big enough to resemble the body of a dead animal. Some other stinky species have hairy petals, which looks deceivingly like mold or fur. Rafflesia flowers even generate heat! Higher temperatures help to volatilize the odors so the pungent aromas can waft through the forest and attract distant flies. The flower’s heat also may feel like a steaming pile of excrement or a warm dead body.

And the flies, they come. They’re attracted to the flower that smells, looks, and feels like a good place to eat and lay their eggs. These flies are foolish, or desperate, or bound by instinct, and relegate their maggot babies to a short life of starvation–because the maggots find themselves not in the rotting meat of an animal, but instead on a flower that’s inedible. The baby flies that hatch on Rafflesia cannot survive.

But the unfortunate flies have pollinated the putrid Rafflesia flower, which now can make malodorous babies of its own.

You know what’s strange is that it seems fairly common for cadavers and cheese to share odors. In the case of cheese, people exploit pregnant flies and their maggot babies. There’s this cheese from Sardinia–casu marzu–that tastes delicious because of the flies that lay their eggs in it. The maggots eat the cheese, digest it, and poop it out, helping to create the soft, leaky delicacy. You’re advised to eat it, maggots and all, while the bugs are still alive.

So next time you’re in the jungle, and you spot the rare and beautiful (but awful-smelling) Rafflesia flower…or when you have a taste of that wriggling Italian cheese…Thank a fly. Hug a bug.

— — — — —

Elsewhere in the world and on the internet:

The titan arum is another magnificently beautiful and gigantic flower that emits a characteristically fetid stench.

The “stink lily” is an edible (by humans) tuber that also smells disgusting (to humans). Here is an illustrated account of a manual pollination attempt, replete with a dog wearing a gas mask.

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hugabug 11: Jumping beans

It’s the bug inside that makes a jumping bean jump.
Listen to find out how and why.

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Music in this show:
1. Fauna, “Hongo x Hongo”
2. CSC Funk Band, “A troll’s soiree” (Brooklyn Chimp remix)
3. Chicha Libre, “Popcorn Andino”
4. Paco de Lucía, “La niña de puerta oscura”
5. Caravan of Thieves, “Mexico”
6. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

— — — — —

The worm in your bottle of tequila (mezcal, actually) is not the only worm that you’ll find in souvenirs from Mexico. Check your jumping beans, too.

I’ve only ever gotten jumping beans from toy stores, but you could find them for yourself in the Mexican desert. There is where jumping beans jump.

Let’s get two things straight–

1. A jumping bean is not a bean. It’s a seed capsule on a shrub that is toxic to humans. The plant has been used by people to poison the tips of arrows.

2. The worm inside a jumping bean (sort of like the one in your bottle of mezcal) is not a worm. It’s an insect larva, a baby bug, that goes through metamorphosis and becomes a moth. It’s the bug inside that makes the jumping bean jump.

Put it under a warm lamp or the sun, or in your fist. Whatever makes the bean hot makes it hop. At higher temperatures, the larva grips the wall of the seed capsule, bends its body, and snaps back, slamming its head against the wall. That’s how it moves its hollow little house out of the hot desert sun and into the safety of shade.

When I was a kid, I thought jumping beans broke after a while, like any other toy. The beans would stop jumping. But it’s not like the bug in the bean is broken. The bug probably is not dead. Just the opposite–the bug is growing.

The larva settles down as it plans for the future. It uses its mandibles to chew the outline of a doorway in the seed capsule that fed and protected it. The door is pre-cut, almost as a perfect circle, and it stays closed during metamorphosis, reinforced with woven silk from the larva. This is the escape hatch for the post-metamorphosis moth.

When it’s ready, the moth head-butts the wall one last time, leaving you and your jumping bean behind.


from Riley 1882 (Proceedings of the United States National Museum)

Now you do the hopping–across the border, through the Mexican desert, to a toxic shrub. Grab a jumping bean. Hug a bug.

Bonus:

Enjoy this trip of a short silent film, which begins with jumping beans and goes off on a wide tangent.

hugabug 10: Velvet worms


from Mayer & Harzsch 2007 (BMC Evolutionary Biology)

Velvet worms do it headfirst.
Listen to find out how and why.

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Music in this show:
1. Pizzicato Five, “Baby love child”
2. The Supremes, “Baby love”
3. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

New! Leave a voicemail for hugabug:
(734) 707–7750

A velvet worm is not really a worm. It’s not quite an insect, either. By any measure, velvet worms occupy their own special category of little creatures. If you find one in the dark, moist crevice of a rotting log, you might think it looks like the love child between an earthworm and centipede that was made into a stuffed animal.


photo by Andras Keszei

Under a microscope, you’ll see something different. Check for spikes or other unusual features, like claws or tusks, on the heads of the males. Even what looks like a pit between their antennae can flip inside-out to reveal something like a thorn on their forehead.



Above: from Tait & Norman 2006 (Journal of Zoology)
Below: from Rockman et al. 2001 (Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution)

Only males carry extra anatomy on their heads. Which raises the question: Do those head structures have something to do with gettin’ some?

The answer is yes. Velvet worms have at least two unparalleled methods of sex.

The first involves going in headfirst. Lord only knows how a male gets sperm from one end of his body to the other, but he does. He makes himself a sperm hat, then approaches a female and pushes his head into her vagina. He’s wedged securely, and the female keeps his head steady with her feet.

The second mode of copulation involves neither the head nor the vagina of a velvet worm. We’re talking insemination through the skin.[1] Here’s what happens–one or several males place one or several sperm packets on a female velvet worm’s skin, all over the place. On her back, her sides, anywhere along the length of her body. The female’s own cells dissolve her skin under a ball of sperm, and a blister forms there. The bursting blister tears her skin and the sperm packet. The sperm swim into the female through her muscle, her tissues, her blood, eventually reaching her ovaries.

The beautiful part of this process is that the empty sperm packet sticks to the female over the wound that formed in her skin; it’s like a natural band-aid. Her body heals the hole, and the next time she sheds her skin to grow, she’s good as new. And pregnant.


Thanks to Andras Keszei for sharing the image

By the way, some velvet worms may not even need a guy’s help to have babies. But that’s another story.

For now, tip your sperm hat to these innovative velvet worms and their creativity when it comes to sex. I hope this gets you in the mood.

To hug a bug.


photo by James Wood

— — — — —

All that, not to mention the gooey cannons used by velvet worms to hunt:

“Two pistols that fire sticky ropes…slimed!” from National Geographic

After a bit of perambulating with its “soft, slumpy legs”, the velvet worm entangles prey with glue shot from the modified legs on its face, and then “reclaims its glue by eating it.” from Mr. Attenborough

Mesmerizing mini-videos (a.k.a. gifs) of the sticky cannons from F@#$ Yeah! Biology!


from Dias & Lo-Man-Hung 2009 (Journal of Arachnology)

Furthermore, these videos do not depict that some velvet worms hunt in groups. And we didn’t even talk about the female-dominated social hierarchy of some velvet worms, where an “alpha female” gets the privilege of nomming all by herself. When she’s finished, other females pick apart the carcass. Finally, male worms are allowed the scraps.

Something like 200 different velvet worm species crawl all over the world using their little hydrostatic-powered legs. mm, diverse-looking.

— — — — —

[1] ^ A detailed description of dermal-haemocoelic insemination, in all its jargony glory, with BONUS untranslated French and German excerpts: Manton 1938 (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B)

hugabug 9: Peregrine falcon


One of the peregrine falcons that lives on the University of Michigan campus
photo by Barb Baldinger

Peregrine falcons hunt by dive-bombing their prey at 200 miles per hour. Some live on the campus of the University of Michigan.
Listen to find out more.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music and other sound in this show:
1. Peregrine falcons (filmed by the Raptor Resource Project)
2. Spoek Mathambo, “Put some red on it”
3. Of Montreal, “Our spring is sweet not fleeting”
4. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

— — — — —

Supposedly, on the campus of the University of Michigan, peregrine falcons have nested at the top of the clock tower. I’m skeptical only because I’ve never seen nor heard them myself, but several very smart people assure me that the peregrine falcons are there. Plus, sometimes when you look on the sidewalk around the base of the clock tower, you’ll find dismembered heads and feet, feathers, and other bits and pieces of unfortunate birds–victims of the falcons up there, which eat their meals 10 stories above the ground.

The menu for a peregrine falcon might include pigeons, doves, woodcocks, rails, woodpeckers, yellow- and black-billed cuckoos, and red-winged blackbirds. So what’s with all the bird carcasses? Why don’t the falcons go for the fat, lumbering squirrels that make easy targets on campus?

Peregrine falcons are very good at hunting in mid-air. They’re amazing flyers that, just by shrugging a shoulder, can initiate the smoothest barrel roll.


photo by Alan Benson

Peregrine falcons hunt by dive-bombing their prey at 200 miles per hour; they hunt by bludgeoning with their feet. Bumping a creature mid-air with their talons either stuns the prey or kills it instantly. For larger prey, like a duck, the peregrine falcon will curl its talons into fists and collide into the duck, breaking its back. If that doesn’t work, the falcon will use its beak to sever the duck’s spine.

Then, the falcon plucks the feathers from its victim and eats.

They’re such effective hunters that sometimes they are used at airports to scare away the birds that could otherwise cause accidents on the runway. They also served in World War II. Peregrine falcons were specially trained to intercept the homing pigeons that carried German spy messages.

But their mode of mid-air hunting doesn’t work as well for something like a fat squirrel. If a peregrine falcon descended upon a rodent at 200 miles per hour, the impact with a tree or the ground would be a painful mess.

So the falcons on campus opt to hunt things that fly, mainly along the Huron River and in marshes around town.

Another danger of whipping through the air at incredible speeds is dust. Even the tiniest debris could damage their eyeballs. Peregrine falcons avoid that danger by using windshields–one on each eye.


Nictitating membrane (part of it, anyway) in a Harris hawk
photo by Steven Hyatt

These translucent extra eyelids are called nictitating membranes. The nictitating membranes slide across their eyeballs to protect against wind; dust; the beaks, wings, and claws of flailing victims; even the sharp beaks of the falcons’ own chicks during feeding time at the nest.

Other animals have nictitating membranes, too, for similar reasons. Sharks, for example–their nictitating membranes protect their eyes in a thrashing attack.

The falcons on campus love the view from the top of the clock tower. But year after year, they could not build a successful nest. Heavy storms would wipe out their attempts every summer. These days, the peregrine falcons use a nest box built for them and installed on the roof of the University Hospital. If you’re lucky, you can spot them there, or at the clock tower, where they sometimes still perch.

If you’re luckier, you may find on the sidewalk near the clock tower the wing ripped from a sorry victim, or its dismembered head, or discarded feet–the scraps of a mid-air meal that a peregrine falcon would call delicious.

Thank you to wonderful people in Ann Arbor and at the University of Michigan for hugging birds. There are plenty more opportunities on campus to hug bugs. Do that, too. Hug a bug, wherever you are.

This week, special thank you to Kenneth Elgersma and Janet Hinshaw for their help in making this episode.

— — — — —

Bonus info is available on the internets:

Peregrine falcons helped intercept German spy messages, but are the falcons spies, themselves?

The Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan has kept tabs on the campus falcons since they arrived.

This one is said to fly at 242 miles per hour.

Video of 2 peregrine falcons visiting a nest box, filmed by the Raptor Resource Project.

hugabug 8: Whale shark megamamma


photo by Alex Mustard

A whale shark known to science as the “megamamma supreme” carried a belly full of over 300 babies.
Listen to find out how and why.

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Music in this show:
1. King Kong, “Scooba dooba diver”
2. Arnold McCuller, “The whale have swallowed me”
3. Hazmat Modine, “The tide”
4. Björk, “Moon”
5. Raymond Scott, “Space mystery (montage)”
6. Monster Rally, “Surf Erie”
7. Raymond Scott, “Space mystery (montage)”
8. Gaby Kerpel, “Toritos”
9. Arnold McCuller, “Don’t go nowhere”
10. King Kong, “Scooba dooba diver”
11. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

— — — — —

This episode of hugabug is dedicated to moms, who know how it feels to carry an organism to term in their belly. That sounds tough. But let me just tell you this–

Whale sharks have been known to carry a belly full of over 300 babies.

Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world. But despite their large size, they’re mysteriously hard to observe. And they’ve kept their love life private; no one has ever witnessed whale shark sex.

A single immensely pregnant whale shark taught us almost everything we know about reproduction in the species. She’s known to science as the “megamamma supreme” [1]. Fishermen harpooned her off the coast of Taiwan when hunting whale sharks was legal there, back in 1995.

The megamamma was a hefty pregnant whale shark. Although she wasn’t quite as big as a school bus, a peek into her stomach showed that more than 300 baby whale sharks traveled inside her belly. No, the megamamma’s pregnant belly would not suddenly deflate as hundreds of baby sharks popped out simultaneously. The whale shark pups shared the same womb, but they weren’t all the same age.


from Baughman 1955 (Copeia)

And it’s a good thing that whale sharks are not the bitey kind. In the pregnant bellies of the more vicious and toothy shark species, an embryo will eat its brothers and sisters in the womb, and only the most aggressive will emerge. But as the most gigantic fish in the ocean, the whale shark eats the smallest creatures without using any teeth. So whale shark pups were safe from cannibals inside the megamamma.

Outside of her belly, though, in the open ocean, there was danger. The enormous number of babies she carried probably indicates that not many of them would survive.

All 300 shark pups had the same father and probably were conceived in a single mating event. And because the brothers and sisters in the megamamma’s belly were different ages, it looks like the megamamma supreme stored the sperm and used it gradually to produce over 300 babies.

For a whale shark, saving sperm is a useful talent when romance happens rarely in the open ocean.

Now honor the endurance it must take to carry one–let alone 300–babies in a belly. Give your megamamma supreme a whale-shark-sized hug. Then swim to the surface, dry yourself off, and hug a bug.

— — — — —

Learn more by exploring the internet:

Great footage of whale sharks

It’s a long video of a swell shark (not a whale shark), but this one is great if you want to know what a shark egg looks like.

Regardless of what anyone says, I remain skeptical that this underwater photo shoot, involving whale sharks and swimming models, really happened.


photo by Shawn Heinrichs

— — — — —

If you’re looking for a good place to go snorkel with whale sharks and SCUBA dive with manta rays, gotta tell you that I love staying at my cousin’s resort in the Philippines. I swam with a male whale shark (dove under his belly to see the cookie-dough-tube-sized claspers) for 15 or 20 minutes. We saw 7 whale sharks on that day; on a previous day, we spotted 2.

Swimming with a whale shark is the best gift you can give yourself.

— — — — —

[1] ^ Seriously. Joung et al. 1996 (Environmental Biology of Fishes)

hugabug 7: Animals in space


Ham the chimpanzee

The United States of America launched a chimpanzee into space, and he came back to Earth with a bruise on his nose.
Listen to find out how and why.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. NASA space recordings of Earth
2. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)
3. John Williams, “The conversation”

— — — — —

It’s January, 1961. We know nothing about how to travel in outer space, or whether it’s even possible. The closest to outer space we’ve reached is the top of Mount Everest–just recently, in 1953!

And the trip up the mountain was very, very difficult–physically and mentally. Climbing to high altitudes makes the strongest among us weak in the body and impaired in the mind. Outer space is 11 times higher than Mount Everest, the highest place on Earth.

Can an astronaut go as high as outer space without dying or going insane? In 1961, we had no idea.

Actually, we figured that an astronaut could physically survive a trip to space. We tested that idea by launching a whole bunch of animals in rockets. Mice, fruit flies, hamsters, rats, rabbits, cats, dogs, goldfish, monkeys, guinea pigs, chicken eggs, frogs. Most of them died, but we saw that it’s possible to leave the earth and come back alive. Still, we had no clue whether our brain could function in outer space.


Baker the space monkey

So, how do you test mental capabilities in outer space without risking a person’s life? Ham the chimpanzee.

Ham learned complex tasks in a lab on Earth. The lights and levers in Ham’s training resembled, as closely as possible, the controls that an astronaut would use in spaceflight. If Ham could replicate complex behavior equally well in a rocket ship as in a lab, we figured that a person could do it.

The experiment with Ham was crucial because he was not just a passenger.

Ham was fitted with monitors measuring his temperature, heartbeat, and breathing. He experienced weightlessness…and Ham made it! He flew out to space, returned to Earth, and survived–with just a bruise on his nose. Ham performed his complex tasks in the rocket, showing that it would be possible for the first human American astronaut to travel and function in space, just a few months later.

Ham survived to a ripe old age, and his cremains are buried in New Mexico, where he’d been trained for his space mission. People still leave bananas on his grave.


Click on a pic!

The unknown grows less scary, the more we learn about it. Go where no person has gone before! Get out there and hug a bug.

— — — — —

Not to be missed elsewhere in the inter-stellar-net:

This mini-documentary produced by the Air Force

Or, if you prefer, you can learn English while listening to French music and watching old-school footage of Ham, the space-traveling chimpanzee.

A slideshow of pictures from LIFE Magazine of chimpanzees being trained for spaceflight

Video of a shuttle launch

— — — — —

(and if you’ve been trying to figure out a good way to tell The Liz how much you love the show…get her one of these shirts!)

hugabug 6: Bed bug sex


photo by Rickard Ignell

A female bed bug’s vagina is never used during sex.
Listen to find out how and why.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. Don Argott, “Cramming for college”
2. Laceration, “Traumatic insemination”
3. DJ Casper, “Cha-cha slide”
4. The Dust Brothers, “Try your luck”
5. The Upstroke, “Sweet juices”
6. Bessie Smith, “Mean old bed bug blues”
7. TriBeCaStan, “Bed bugs”
8. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

— — — — —

(This show is broadcast on WCBN-FM Ann Arbor at 9am Eastern every Friday morning. That’s early, right…?)

Transcript:

A female bed bug’s vagina is never used in sex. How can that be? Traumatic insemination. When you’ve got a penis as hard and sharp as a knife, no vagina is necessary. Here’s what sex is like for a bed bug–

A female bed bug is stuffed after sucking blood from your sleeping body. She ate enough of your blood to be about 4 times fatter than she was earlier that afternoon.

Before the blood meal:

After:

photos by Richard Naylor

Now that she’s pleasantly plump, this lady looks pretty sexy to a male bed bug. No flirtation is necessary–a male climbs onto the female’s back. BAM! His penis stabs through the female’s belly and ejaculates. The sperm travel through the female’s blood, reach her oviducts, and fertilize her eggs. After a few minutes, the penis-stabbing mercifully stops.

The male doesn’t guard his mate. He just walks away after the deed is done. This leaves the female vulnerable to more sexual encounters.

BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!

A female bed bug can expect about 5 stab wounds after each meal. From 5 different males.

You can tell whether a female bed bug is a virgin by checking for scars on her stomach. Actually, you can see how many times a female has mated by counting her stab wounds. Not all the time, though. Sometimes the scars are too many to count.


from Siva-Jothy 2006 (Philosophical Transactions B)

Bed bugs densely populate your mattress, so a female encounters tons of male bed bugs no matter where she goes. A female bed bug has no control over her own sex life. Males impose themselves on her far more often than is practical. All this penis-stabbing into the abdomen is unhealthy for a female bed bug–too much or too clumsy sex is fatal. A female bed bug that survives needs to heal her stab wounds, and those wounds can become infected. One study[1] mentioned that “[r]ecently mated females were occasionally found dead with ruptured guts.”

Not to spread rumors[2], but male bed bugs often don’t discriminate between male and female partners. Regarding male-on-male events, some scientists speculate that the penis-stabbing male’s semen stays in the wounded male’s body, so the wounded male ejaculates his attacker’s semen when he finds his own partner to stab in the belly with his own genitalia. In other words, a bed bug doesn’t even need to stab a female in the stomach to get her pregnant; some other dude can do it for him.


from Siva-Jothy 2006 (Philosophical Transactions B)
(Click the pic to see it up close)

Yes, bed bugs suck your blood, raise welts on your skin, and make you itch. Sure, bed bugs are persistent little bloodsuckers that can and will hide anywhere, making them almost impossible to eradicate. It’s true–bed bugs have wreaked their havoc from the hiding spot of one man’s prosthetic leg.

But here’s the silver lining–the happy ending to a bed bug story:
Bed bugs do not kill you. They don’t transmit any scary diseases.

Yeah, I know. That’s not enough for you to fall in love with them or stab them in the stomach (speaking figuratively) (and romantically). But you know you want to hug a bug!

— — — — —

The following video is a public service announcement sponsored by bed bugs:

Green Porno with Isabella Rossellini

— — — — —

just a couple References:

[1] ^ Reinhardt & Siva-Jothy 2007 (Annual Review of Entomology)

[2] ^ Siva-Jothy (2006) dismissed the proposed evolutionary explanation for male-on-male bed bug sex as “an urban myth among zoologists”. In any event, here’s how entomologist and ecologist extraordinaire, May Berenbaum, has described apparent homosexuality in bed bugs: “With no elaborate courtship ritual, males in a frenzied pursuit of sexual congress often blunder into and puncture the bodies of other males, occasionally inflicting fatal wounds.”

— — — — —

Further reading:

Did you know that bed bugs have played an important role in the history of furniture design? Beds, specifically.

Also, a natural method exists to eradicate bed bugs!