Who ate my cake?

Who ate my cake?

I’d left the cake on the counter to cool. Having seen a couple of ants in the kitchen, I made sure to put the cake on a tall cooling rack and covered it with a cloth.

A few hours later, I returned to a cake COVERED in ants.

Step 1: grab cake pan and throw it in the backyard (do this while emitting a high pitched squeal)
Step 2: wipe down the counters and cupboards and any ants still present
Step 3: start making new cake for neighbor’s birthday
Step 4: design fancy new ant-proof cooling rack
Step 5: post about ant-cake on Facebook

Since many of my friends are biologists, I received odd comments on my post: Did it smell like blue cheese when I squished them? How big were they? What color?
I had no idea how to identify a species of ant. So I went to a logical starting point, the School of Ants Identification graph. How many petioles? What shape? Clubbed antennae?

Ok, so I admit that I have a microscope in my house. Really. It’s a very old microscope – very dirty and doesn’t focus very well – but it does the job. I narrowed down my ant to one of two species (mostly because I couldn’t see whether the ant had a hairy butt):
The Forelius Ant or Odorous House Ant

According to Dr. Eleanor, the Forelius is reddish (not my ant) and has a chemical cleaner smell if you squish them. I squished an ant and sniffed… chemical (kind of like a whiteboard cleaner). These ants also have a really cool relationship with Catalpa trees, but that doesn’t help me answer the identity question.
The Odorous House Ants are black and, when squished, smell like blue cheese or coconut. They have a cool relationship with a caterpillar, but again, I was getting distracted.

So, I’m still not sure which species ate my cake. But I sure did learn a lot about ant anatomy (and smells)!

Meet the (Burying) Beetle

Meet the (Burying) Beetle

The “burying beetle” doesn’t bring his love flowers or candy; he finds a carcass for her.
If the female finds the dead body acceptable, she’ll mate with her suitor and lay her eggs on the carcass. The pair then bury the body, guarding and feeding their growing brood. Larger carcasses supply space to more offspring. But if the body is too small, the parents will eat some of their young, ensuring enough space for the remaining larvae.
After 1-2 weeks, the larvae disperse to complete their development. They pupate for ~two months and then prepare for winter.
And their doting parents? Caring for young takes its toll. They’ll die after their young have left “home”.

Maine Geology

Maine Geology

Visited Maine last week. Very cool geology. The rocks exposed through erosion (granite & gabbro) create chunky blocks. Ribbons of quartz streak through the igneous gabbro. When the massive glacier retreated from the northern US at the end of the last ice age (~10,000 years ago), it left large boulders that stick out like a sore thumb.

Carapace Cornucopia

Carapace Cornucopia by Jennifer Landin

Carapace Cornucopia by Jennifer Landin

A trip to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences inspired this painting. The Nature Resource Center has a room-sized ‘cabinet of curiosities’ with loads of turtle shells. Inspiration!

The upcoming “Patterns in Nature” art show opening was creeping closer and I struggled to find a concept – shafts of wheat? a composite flower? a millipede? All left me uninspired.

But turtles… aDORable. You can’t go wrong with a pile of turtles.

Cool thing about these shells is… all the bones are the same – just different shapes and patterns. Five big scutes (keratin plates) follow the midline, four scutes surround either side, and 12 scutes line the margins of each side. Under the scutes, the bones of the shell are just expanded ribs and vertebra.

Cool example of diversity, divergent evolution, and homologous structures.