The Devil’s Garden

Imagine walking in the impossibly dense and diverse forest of Peruvian Amazon and chancing upon an eerie, unusual sight of an odd patch of clearing where only 1 plant species lives, the Duroia hirsuta tree. It is what the locals call the Devil’s Garden, where the trees are cared for by the devil itself.

Courtesy of margaretrosebell3 from

Courtesy of margaretrosebell3 from

However, recent research has suggests a much unlikely culprit – Myrmelachista schumanni ants.  Previous studies have fasely identified that devil’s gardens result from allelopathy, which is the local inhibition of plant growth by another plant, in this case D. hirsuta. Myrmelachista schumanni, commonly known as lemon ants due to their taste, injects Formic acid to poison all other plant species except its host plant.

Myrmelachista schumanni,  poison non-host plants by injecting formic acid into the plant stems.(Image: BBC/Martin Dohrn, taken from the new documentary series, Life in the Undergrowth)

Myrmelachista schumanni, poison non-host plants by injecting formic acid into the plant stems.(Image: BBC/Martin Dohrn, taken from the new documentary series, Life in the Undergrowth)

Although formic acid is common amongst ants as a defense against insect or animal attacks, it is the first time it has been known to be use as herbicides. Researches call this niche construction, as lemon ants resides in the hollow stems of the host plant, they gain more nests by ensuring the growth of such trees by eliminating competition.

Animals seemingly never cease to amaze, the manipulation of the environment by the lemon ants is comparable to Man’s ability itself. One of the Devil’s Garden is estimated to be around 800 years old, these relatively small lemon ants’ ability is certainly astounding!


Megan E. Frederickson, Michael J. Greene & Deborah M. Gordon, 2005. ‘Devil’s garden bedevilled by ants’. Nature, 437:495-496.

David P.Edwards, Megan E. Frederickson, Glenn H. Shepard and Douglas W. Yu, 2009. “A Plant Needs Ants like a Dog Needs Fleas: Myrmelachista schumanni Ants Gall Many Trees to Create Housing”. The American Naturalist, 174(5):734-740.

“Devil’s garden” by sonefe67, 04 March 2008. URL: (accessed on 1 April 2010)

Watch out! It’s a Vampire Moth!

A vampire moth sucking on human blood. Photo by Sharon Hill

It is common knowledge that insects like butterflies and moths do not feed on blood, or at least not on human blood, like mosquitoes do. However,  a couple of years ago, scientists have discovered a species of blood feeding moths which are similar to the Siberian moths; the Calyptra thalictri,.  Scientists believe that this is an evolutionary behaviour that has developed from traits like feeding on tears and pus filled wounds (Roach, 2008) .

But why do they feed on blood? As seen in the video, research has shown that these moths only exhibit this trait under experimental conditionals. In other words, they only exhibited feeding of blood in an non-natural environment. Therefore, whether this behaviour occurs under natural conditions is unknown.

It is also interesting to note that this blood feeding behaviour is only seen in males. Scientists have hypothesised that males engage in such behaviour because of a deficiency in nutrients like salt. It is also believed to be a ‘sexual gift’ since salt is passed to the females during copulation.  According to the Entomologist Jennifer Zaspel, this sexual gift would give a nutritional boost to the young (Roach, 2008).

Calyptra thalictri are common in the regions of Malaysia and southern Europe. So the next time we head to Malaysia, do we need to bring bags of garlic  to ward off  these potentially blood sucking moths? No, not so much. Apparently,these moths are not believed to be transmitters of disease and hence are not considered as a threat to humans (Simpson, 2008) . But nothing is certain as of now as research is still underway to learn more about these moths.

This evolutionary process of the moths got me thinking.  If Man keeps destroying nature, this type of  insects and many others will naturall evolve into blood feeding creatures because of the lack of food. If that happens, what else can Man do then wipe out these insects? Let’s hope this evolutionary process does these insects more good than harm.


“Vampire Moths Discovered” by National Geographic. YouTube Channel, 18 November 2008 URL: (accessed on 28 March 2010.

Roach, J. (27 October, 2008). Vampire Moth Discovered — Evolution at Work. Retrieved 30 March , 2010, from National Geographic Daily News:

Simpson, P. V. (28 July , 2008). Vampire moth turns up in Sweden. Retrieved 30 March, 2010, from The Local : Sweden’s News in English:

Zaspel, J. M., Kononenko, V. S., & Goldstein, P. Z. (2007). Another Blood Feeder? Experimental Feeding of a Fruit-Piercing Moth Species on Human Blood in the Primorye Territory of Far Eastern Russia (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae: Calpinae). Journal of Insect Behaviour , 437-451.

“Vampire Moth Discovered — Evolution at Work” by Sharon Hill. National Geographic News. URL: (accessed on 30 March 2010)

Till death do us part


Here his mate is injured and her condition is fatal. She was hit by a car as she swooped low across the road.


Caring and concerned he brought her food and attended to her with love and compassion


He brought her food again but was shocked to find her dead. He tried to move her … a rarely-seen effort for swallows!


Aware that his sweetheart is dead and she will never come back to him again, he cries out with adoring love.


He stood beside her calling for her return and saddened by her death.


 Finally aware that she would never return to him, he stood vigil beside her still body with sadness and sorrow.


The story you just read was sent to me through email by a friend. It was taken by a photographer who sold these pictures to a newspaper in France, and has been spreading over the Internet like wildfire. Unlike many today, that swallow (it seemed) was true to the words, ‘till death do us part’ that he might have ‘cheeped’ on the altar. Yet, the question you are probably asking is, does it apply for all swallows or is this just one of the few soon-to-be-extinct species of Mr. Rights that female Homo sapiens dream of every night?

Mr. Right (the swallow) is a H. r. rustica, a subspecies of Barn Swallow, scientific name Hirundo rustica. His species is usually found in Europe and Asia. Studies show that barn swallows do copulate with non-mates, thereby leading to copulation with non-mates and multiple paternity of a single brood (Ford 1983; McKinney et al. 1984), especially so in a large colony. As a result, male mates like Mr. Right, tend to engage in mate guarding as a measure against extra-pair copulations (EPC), thereby making sure his wife does not go around making love with any other male that decides to drop by their nest. This is especially so for young unmated males (aka players), who benefit from EPC since they are not bound to a nest. Besides EPC, males also engage in frequent within-pair copulations to keep out competitors keen on a one-night stand with their wives (Møller, 1987). Barn swallows as we can see are thus socially monogamous, especially for the males. For the females, they remain monogamous, until a more attractive male arrives and give reasons such as a longer outermost tail feather, tempting enough for them to turn polygamous.

So, what about Mr. Right? Studies on how animals and emotions is scarce, with animal psychology still in its infancy, and feelings being something is that very little studied since it is hard to observe and that a common language have yet to be found between homo sapiens and swallows, so interviews cannot be conducted yet. However, through the behaviors of Mr. Right I believe we can make an intellectual guess (as did the photographer) on how he felt at the death of his spouse, when we link that to how we homo sapiens would feel in the same scenario. However, deeper reasons such as whether Mr. Right is feeling sad over the loss of a loved one or whether the death of his wife meant that he will have the trouble of finding another wife at his age, would however remain undisclosed till researchers find a way into understanding the tiny swallow’s heart.


Anders Pape Møller, 1987. Advantages and disadvantages of coloniality in the swallow, Hirundo rustica. Animal Behaviour, Volume 35, Issue 3, Pages 819-832.

Ford, N. L. 1983. Variation in mate fidelity in monogamous birds. In: Current Ornithology. Vol. 1 (Ed. by R. F. Johnston), pp. 329-356. New York and London: Plenum Press.

 McKinney, F., Cheng, K. M. & Bruggers, D. J. 1984. Sperm competition in apparently monogamous birds. In: Sperm Competition and the Evolution of Animal

Mating Systems (Ed. by R. L. Smith), pp. 523-545. Orlando: Academic Press.

Moller AP, Tegelstrom H., 1997. Extra-pair paternity and tail ornamentation in the barn swallow Hirundo rustica.  Behavioral and sociobiology, 41(5): 353-360.

Till death do us part..

Cold blooded animals like reptiles are not usually associated with being faithful. To put it in a humanise  way, reptiles flirt around with no fix sexual partner throughout its life. However, this particular reptile specie will change your life, my life (just joking) and perhaps our views on cold blooded animals.


Shingleback from Dr Ellen

In reptiles, and lizards in particular, monogamy is rarely reported. However, this lizard(shown above)  is almost the only one that is monogamy. Monogamy is where a single male and a single female form an exclusive association and cooperate in breeding activity (Wickler and Seibt, 1983).

The reptile that is so “faithful” is Tiliqua rugosa, commonly known as Shingleback blue- tongued skink. It is found throughout the drier parts of Southern Anstralia, from approximately Bathurst in New South Wales all the way to the coast of Western Australia. (Loch, T. 2000) Shingleback skinks are among the largest of the Australian skinks. Mature adults typically weigh about 600 to 900 grams and have snout-vent lengths (SVLs) of 16 to 18 inches (VItt and Pianka, 1994).

Enough of the reptile, lets go into the sweetest part of the animal. It is best known for monogamy.

There are several reason why animals choose to be monogamy :

1) Males stay with their female partner to provide paternal care and help to raise young to ensure a higher reproduction rate.

2) Males had to guard their female partner from rivalry to ensure their own paternity.

3) Females adopt monogamy when they are advantaged by accompanying males.

However, these 3 most common reasons/functions of monogamy cannot explain why Shingleback choose to form loyal pairs for up to 20 years (FYI, their average lifespan is 15 years in the wild thus it is effectively “married” for life). So why did Shingleback choose to remain loyal when the apparent functions of monogamy are not applicable to them? Some scientists used the costs VS benefits theory to explain. They explain that it might cost more to break a relationship then to remain with the same partner throughout its life. Thus, in the case of Shingleback, the benefits of staying loyal outweigh the cost of looking for a partner every mating session. Well, i believe that some things cannot be explained using science especially in the field of relationship.

Image from Dr Ellen

The whole duration of courtship take an amazingly long period of time (well, at least in animals). An inseparable courtship stage ensues for 6-8 weeks. In other words, the couple will stay side by side for more than 2 months before they began their mating ritual. This prolong period of courtship is seldom observed in reptiles.  After the copulation, pairs then usually separated for 10 months, after which they seek out the identical partner the following years.  Astonishingly, some pairs have been found together for 10 consecutive years (Vitt and Pianka. 1994). A study done by University of Michigan Museum of Zoology illustrate long-term individual recognition by this specie and also shows that these reptiles are monogamous more often than not (Loch, T.2000).

In the video shown below, we would observe the courtship behaviour exhibited by the Shingleback. I was shocked when i heard that the couple will remain side by side for up to 2 months. The courtship is so “human like” in the way when gentle touching(or licking) is the way of courtship (compared to other reptiles). Towards the last part of the video, the humane side of them shows again. The male would stay with the female after it was dead. It was indeed surprising for a reptile to do that!

Maybe, one day, we should redefine some of our definition or labeling of our cold blooded friends.

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