MUTUAL SYMBIOSIS – Fascinating teamwork in nature – Evolution # 4

Originally posted on Steemit:
Egyptian plover birds don’t give a sh#tPreviously:

Stupid Design
Weird Evolution
The Axolotl


We’ve looked at some pretty amazing aspects of evolution so far, but where convergent evolution happens often, and badly designed organisms are common, symbiosis is quite literally all around us. In fact, some scientists even argue that the earth is essentially one giant symbiotic organism.

What is it?

As you likely know, symbiosis is a situation where two or more separate species are physically in contact with each other in a way that is beneficial for one or both members. However, this can be broken down into several categories:

• Mutualism – Classical symbiosis, where both members benefit equally
• Parasitism – Where one member actively damages or destroys the other
• Commensalism – Where one member benefits and the other has no noticeable change
• Obligate symbiosis – Where the organism requires the relationship in order to survive
• Facultative symbiosis – Not entirely necessary but it does boost chances of survival

How does symbiosis happen?

Symbiotes aren’t consciously aware of their ‘agreement’, nor do they hash out ideas in meetings to maximize their symbiotic potential. Symbiotes just do whatever they need to do, instinctively.

But how is that possible? Two creatures can’t just magically and perfectly slot together like a square block in a square whole, and then just continue generation after generation this way, so wa’ gwan with that?

‘The secret to evolution is time and death’, as Carl Sagan once put it. Over thousands of generations, two species likely start of in facultative symbiosis. This situation is pretty sweet. Addictive, even. But, like all addictions, the victims become dependent on the given benefits, and those who exploit those benefits are the ones that survive, while those who do not, die.

If that isn’t a decent argument to start taking heroin, I don’t know what is.

So it’s often just easier to use the tools of another species than figure out how to do it themselves. One example of this is the Tree-Fungi relationship. 90% of all plants in the world have a fungal partner.

Though we only see the reproductive ‘mushroom’ growing atop the ground, they are in fact a huge subterranean fungal system that latches onto the roots of trees. Fungi already has an efficient root system in place and can help the tree spread its roots further, whilst also providing nutrients. At the same time, the tree can provide a share of the nutrients created by its leafy photosynthesis.

The fine filament of a fungus greatly enhances the surface area for roots of a tree in the soilThere’s a lot of symbiosis we are plainly aware of, like our own gut bacteria; we cannot survive without it, and they need us for a nice, warm home. Like Couchsurfing.

Flowers, insects and birds often have symbiosis; the flower provides the food, the insect takes the food and also takes the pollen, dropping it off in another flower in a strange work-around sex; pollination. Birds also do this but can eat the insects if they want, too. Why not.

As shown in a previous evolution post, some flowers grow increasingly specific, allowing only a particular animal in through various mechanisms.

But there are some more bizarre and pretty outrageous. Let’s take a look.

Solar powered life

There is a worm which unfortunately lacks a popular nick name, the Symsagittifera roscoffensis, but is amazing nonetheless. Let’s call it Gitti

SourceThere are few examples better to show how in some cases, symbiosis greys the definition of what a plant and animal is.

This Gitti worm is small, flat and transparent (like your… never mind), but it takes on a green appearance after allowing algae to live and grow within its body. In return, the Gitti doesn’t even need to eat, instead surviving off the energy given by the sun, through the algae’s photosynthesis. This relationship has grown so deep, that the worm has no functioning digestive tract or mouth. What’s more, the waste products are recycled by the algae and they never need to leave Gitti’s body.

not a plantThe thing is, this isn’t even unique. Corals are animals that use algae to collect sugar, and others like sea slugs, jellyfish and sponges use this trick too. Even wilder, a few years ago the first vertebrate species was discovered running on solar power in facultative symbiosis: the spotted salamander.


Cecropia Trees and Azteca Ants

The Cecropia tree is hollow, and inside it produces sugary juice perfect for Azteca ants. The ants move into this perfect shelter and feed off the sugar. In return, the ants serve as the trees own personal army, killing off any competition in the vicinity and protecting the tree from vines and other pests and herbivores.

The tree has even developed specialised, tiny gripping hooks for the ants to use to gain greater traction during fights.


A honeyguide is a bird that LOVES honey, but it’s not strong enough to break into a hive itself. So what better way to accomplish this by deliberately grabbing the attention of bigger animals – including honey badgers and even humans – and leading them to the bee’s nest. After the stupid brute breaks it apart, the honeyguide can take its fair share.


Urchin Crab & Fire Sea Urchin

Crabs often lack sufficient defense with those measly, giant claws of death, but the Urchin crab has managed to work with a type of poisonous urchin to guarantee safety. They take a Fire Sea Urchin over twice their own size and put it on their head while they travel, and in return, the Urchin gets a free ride. This is a pretty cute video:

Frogs and spiders

In Colombia, the lesserback tarantula likes to have a frog roommate. The tarantula benefits because the frog eats the ants that would otherwise kill the eggs in the nest, and the frog benefits because it has a huge-ass tarantula protecting it.


Sloths, Moss and Sloth Moths

Try saying that three times quickly.

The three-toed sloth is a bit of a mystery. Nobody was quite sure why it would make the tedious journey down from the tree canopy just to take a poop at the base of a tree. This is super dangerous, and up to half of sloth mortality happens here.

Recently, scientists kind of figured out a three-way symbiotic relationship that could possibly make the risk worthwhile.

Originally people just thought the sloth was SO slow that even algae would grow on its back. But it’s much more than that. As it turns out, the limited diet of low-nutrition leaves is supplemented by the high-fat algae the sloth picks off its own fur.

Not only this, but the Sloth Moths help the algae grow by living and dying on it (the algae breaks down dead moths into nutrients), and the Sloth helps the Sloth Moth breed by traveling down the tree and pooping so the moths can lay their eggs there.

SourceEverybody wins. Except the sloth when it gets eaten by a jaguar, but still.


It looked like this one, in Vietnam

It looked like this one, in Vietnam

I never had a plan to write anything personal to me here, but this is an exception, as I’m sure there will turn out to be an increasing amount of due to the habitual self-centred nature of humans, but whatever.

Today I did something I can probably never forgive myself about, and something that will flash in my eyes from time to time for the rest of my life.

I’m an animal lover, a nature lover. Not the kind of ‘aww look at that cute puppy!’ kind of animal lover who then goes on to say ‘eww get rid of that horrible spider’ and ‘kill those annoying ants’ and then ‘what a sweet funny kitten!’. I’m the kind of animal love that actually likes animals and nature, not things that are generally fluffy and cute, which, in the majority of cases, have been genetically modified to be that way so they get sold for money to those who have it and don’t need it.

I am fascinated by all nature and life, all the horrible viruses and bugs, all the majestic tigers and, well I’m also not a hippy about it. I eat meat, because it doesn’t look like animals and it tastes good. I don’t eat seafood because it looks like animals and tastes bad. Except tuna for some reason. It doesn’t have that piss-in-the-ocean smell, which i find pleasantly mysterious.

If I see an ant, I watch it and I am interested by it. Just today one of my desk ants was carrying a crumb I left behind earlier in the day down my headphone cable, on its way to the underside of the desk. Fine.
If an ant is under my foot when I happen to be lowering my foot in order to walk or not float away, I will react quickly and shift my whole weight to the side to avoid the chance that a non-indented part of my shoe might crush it.

The same goes for any animal and – aside from inadvertently inhaling animals to death like mites, and just generally unavoidable consequences of insects, and a very few mosquitoes followed by some guilt – I can safely say I haven’t killed anything, ever. Certainly no birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians.

Today that changed.

Tennis at night, 8-10pm,

Tennis at night, 8-10pm,


I was back at tennis after a month or so hiatus due to my heavy double-job schedule with this movie soundtrack taking up my spare time, and I was about to dive into a big fat serve, threw the ball up in the air, prepared to strike.
Suddenly, as my full swing was already in motion, like a bat out of hell, a bat swooped in and latched onto the ball.
It was far too late, I had already hit it before I even knew what I hit.

The bat landed, stunned. possibly organs destroyed but, from the outside nothing immediate seemed broken. It looked more stunned than anything else. It reacted with a squeal when my Korean partner – my current opponent – touched it, and so he carefully lifted it and took it to a Vietnamese guy working at the courts, asking what to do with it. I watched in the distance as he handed it over to the Vietnamese man.

Now, there were many Nails in the coffin of my opinion towards Vietnam, mainly the crocodile spit roasts, colourfully dyed crocodile leather, useless bureaucracy, ridiculous and unreliable opening and closing times, traffic, and, well, I won’t describe every nail but it’s more like a graveyard at this point.

But the final nail in the coffin going into the last space in the ground was when that Vietnamese man nonchalantly dropped the bat, stomped on it to get out a little squeak of defeat, and swept it off into the grass. That was because of me. I was not directly responsible for its death, but i was directly responsible for it being dead.

Hell, maybe I killed an animal as a kid due to not feeding it or dropping it or something – I have no memories of it, except a spider which I won’t go into the details of but it literally haunts my dreams to this day, a decade or so later – and so this is…


You underestimate the ant. That is a mistake.


Ants don’t discriminate when it comes to diversity.

I have a small family of ants on my desk at work. Usually it’s just the one ant roaming around, checking out my books and seeing if I happened to have spilt any sugary goods on them. This scout sometimes distracts me, and often I have to sit in certain ways to make sure my elbows don’t get in his way, other times I have to move various cables as to not be guilty of a deadly but inadvertent swooping of the little guy down to the abyssal floor below. Who knows what dangers lie down there?

Well, today, my ant appears to have a social life. The problem with social groups is the power of the collective hive mind, which equals much more than the sum of its parts. This is why we get ridiculously pointless riots in some countries, one in particular just off the coast of Europe.

Four ants are currently nonchalantly roaming around my laptop screen and keys looking for various particles of stuff to provide them with a sugar drink. I have to keep halting my typing and wait for them to finish with the E button before I can move on. I learnt that I could blow on them softly and it would scare them a bit and they would move away for a few seconds (I’m human and smart, so I can ‘learn’. Smart things learn). But that group mindset of theirs always brings them back.

What was interesting was when an ant found some kind of dried patch of sugary water that must have splashed onto my laptop just above the keys at some point. The ant just sat there nibbling into it, and remains there to this moment. At first I gave it a couple of blows to move him away, and he would run away once or twice. But the proximity in which he ran decreased per blow. After the fifth blow, he just decided to buckle down and grip the surface harder and continue nibbling.

One of his friends happened to pass by, took a few curious glances and eventually came to take his share. I gave them both a powerful shot of wind, because quite frankly they were taking advantage of my glucosian generosity.

What happened struck me as interesting. The second ant ran away, I saw his tiny legs beating as fast as they possibly could. The first ant – my ant – continued to sit there. He had officially *learned* that I was not a threat. Before long, all three of his ant friends were in a circle enjoying the sugar patch, and I was powerless to stop it.

Do you see what I mean? The combined mind of many is why I just lost a battle to four ants.

This combo attack is also why ants are so incredibly successful on this planet as a whole. Some have estimated that for every human, there are 100 million ants. If you consider this and the fact that ants use their bodies to construct bridges and floating devices for their queen to travel down river, it’s not unreasonable to picture the day they get together and form a little over 7 billion super ants. 100 million ants create a greater overall mass than a human, I think. Forgive me for not showing my working.*

The problem here, unfortunately, is that we have weapons. They have mandibles. Mandibles are useless compared to nukes and chemical weapons. So it would be much wiser for this super ant revolution to, well, not be a revolution at all. At least not a conspicuous one.

It would be far more effective if these ants took the form of humans. 100 million to a human. One Queen in the centre of each body, calling the shots. The ones left over can be hired for intelligence or more scouts. Singular ant scouts will find it much easier to get through security than 100 million ants together with a hat and trench coat.

As humans they could cause far greater damage, whilst not getting hurt. Keep your enemies close, afterall. Billions of ants, distributed globally in all the major cities, tiny hamlets and desert towns. Chemical weapons and Nukes would have no effect here, and using guns would just spread the ants out into a shapeless mound, only to reconvene moments later. Grenades will do the trick but again, at what cost in the centre of New York and Tokyo?

This war-like scenario shouldn’t even take place for a good while anyway. The aim of the game is to go about the world unnoticed, blending in with the human demons, gather Intel.

To be honest, it would be an auto-destructing process; just having another 7 billion humans would completely crash the global economy, the food resources, the ecological and biological state of the world and of course the climate. At the same time, the places where the ants used to be would now be devoid of them; the food chain is destroyed.

So all they have to do in order to completely ruin the human race is to not get caught. Well, ants aren’t stupid. You may know that there is in fact already a super ant colony, which dominates most of the entire planet, thanks to the exploitation of human globalization. That is to say, ants have exploited us, used us for their own personal gain and organized a worldwide organization 70 quadrillion (70,000,000,000,000,000) strong – without the internet. I think they can handle not getting caught.


Ants build cities, too.

Some hurdles I foresee for the ants which they will have to learn to jump:

Hurdles. I think hand-eye coordination will be a supreme task that might require significant training. You have to blend in so you also need to take part in human endeavours such as work, relationships and sports. Jumping hurdles would be a pretty tough hurdle to jump, but this is only the amateur stage of global ant colonisation.

Food. Ants love sugar. Eating human food just won’t suffice in many situations so they have to make sure they are around the right places at all times, internationally so. The best bet is home delivery, so the public doesn’t see the entire human body nibble slowly at the food source. Which brings me to the next quandary.

Language. This you might think would be the most impossible of all tasks, but I don’t think so. our voice is simply a couple of cords altering shape and whatnot. This can easily be mimicked with a few ants, so we don’t really need to talk about it, it’ll just take time and diligence to achieve. However…

Facial recognition. This is tricky because people tend to look at each other. It would be ok if a super ant balaclava’d itself up or made the decision to become a Muslim female, but if 7 billion people suddenly turned up to earth, all dressed in burkas? I think it would raise at least 4 eyebrows, and probably several billions more. The best solution is to get a team of ant cosmeticians on the go, or some extremist humans to do the work for them after convincing them they are doing it for the greater good, or in the name of whatever God ants tend to believe in.

Motive. When it comes down to it, you probably need a reason to take over humans in the first place. Sure, humans kill ants by the uncountable, every second of the day, but so does every other big animal. By comparison humans are pretty helpful. They have helped perpetuate the ant species to an unbelievable amount. Getting rid of humans would slice a large fraction out of the ant population. But then, why would ants care about that, too? If for no other reason, you need a motive for the great speakers to convince the ant civilians to do a good job and remain loyal to their queens.

That’s pretty much every problem an ant revolution could possibly have, all of which are easily resolved given some time.

There is… one other problem I foresee. The same people who estimated those ant numbers also estimated that for every ant, there are 100 million… mites. those figures amass to 7 septillion mites globally. (7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000).


They’re coming for you, and my god they’re gonna make you sneeze.

Mites are much smaller but with those numbers, they could be a fierce competition should they figure out the same teamwork structure as the ants. Of course, the response would simply be to ally forces with the termites.


Termites are pretty proficient at the whole city thing, too.

Are you ready for it?

*Alright I did the working out. an ant weighs on average, 0.0003 grams. x 100,000,000 = 30,000 grams = 30 Kilograms. OK  so two super ants make an average Asian Male Adult. 3.5 billion is still enough to do the damage above so nothing is void. Especially if they’re all in China which the super ant size seems to imply.