Florida Is Home to 'Skull-Collecting' Ants, Because Florida

Florida’s Formica archboldi ants are not to be messed with. As Newsweek reports, a North Carolina-based researcher recently discovered that the species applies a waxy coat to its body to chemically mimic its intended prey, a kind of trap-jaw ant in the genus Odontomachus. Then, the predator sprays its unsuspecting prey with acid to immobilize it and drags it back to its underground lair, where it dismembers the body and presumably eats everything but the hollowed-out heads.

The Florida ant’s habit of letting the heads pile up in its nest has earned it a pretty grisly nickname: the “skull-collecting ant.” This behavior has been observed since the 1950s. However, scientists have only recently learned how the Florida ant manages to kill trap-jaw ants, which are formidable predators in their own right (they can snap their jaws shut at speeds of over 100 miles an hour).

Researcher Adrian Smith, head of the Evolutionary Biology & Behavior Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, observed the F. archboldi ants mimicking trap-jaw ants at the chemical level by coating their bodies in the same waxy substance that covers their prey. Smith says they’re probably disguising themselves, but the extent to which they do so isn’t yet known.

The ants were also seen shooting formic acid from their abdomens to render the trap-jaw ants motionless. The new findings were published in the journal Insectes Sociaux, and Smith even captured the gruesome action on camera, which you can check out in the video below.

Smith says he’s been fascinated with the ants—which are also found in parts of Alabama and Georgia—since he was an undergrad student at Florida State.

“They’re one of the most badass ants I know of. That’s why I wanted to study them—they decorate their nests with skulls,” Smith told The Verge. “A lot of other ants do cool things, but these are special to me because they’re from Florida, and I’m from Florida."

[h/t Newsweek]

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

Forget Therapy Puppies—Michigan State Students Brush Cows to De-Stress for Finals

iStock.com/123ducu
iStock.com/123ducu

As more universities are coming to understand just how stressful the rigors of modern academics can be, many institutions have begun bringing dogs onto campus to soothe anxious students during finals week. At Michigan State University, students have a more unique option to help them de-stress: cow time.

According to Click on Detroit, the recent "Finals Stress mooove on out!" event gave students the chance to brush cows at Michigan State's Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center just south of the school's main campus. For $10, participants spent 30 minutes brushing one of the school's 200 dairy cows, an activity designed to relax both the human and the cow.

Not all students come to college with a working knowledge of large-ruminant etiquette, so MSU farm manager Andrea Meade was on hand to show students what to do, prevent them from accidentally spooking the animals, and answer questions about milking and dairy practices.

Studies have shown that petting dogs can help lower your blood pressure, but dogs aren't the only animals that provide people with a psychological boost. A number of animals have been found to help relax humans (though the effect tends to be greater when it's a familiar animal rather than one the person just met), including cows. One 2011 study in Norway found that after working on a dairy farm for 12 weeks, psychiatric patients showed lower levels of anxiety and depression.

And the cows need to be brushed whether there are students there or not, so the event presented a mutually beneficial situation. Many dairies employ automated brush systems to keep cows clean and stimulate blood flow, keeping them happier and healthier in the process.

You don't need to be a student to enjoy the calming effects of cattle, though. Upstate New York's Mountain Horse Farm's hour-long "cow cuddling" sessions let you pet, brush, and play with new bovine friends for $75.

[h/t Click on Detroit]

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