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Our Cheeseburgers Are Changing Ants’ Bodies

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Image Credit: iStock

If you happened to walk down Broadway in New York City in late May 2013, you may have seen something extraordinary: a man crawling over the sidewalks through garbage, occasionally stopping to suck up ants through a straw-like device called a pooter. This man was biologist Dr. Clint Penick, and he kept up this behavior for a week. “Not a single person asked me what I was doing,” Penick tells mental_floss. “I guess I wasn’t the weirdest thing they’d seen that day.”

Penick and his team at NC State collected 21 species of New York City ants to measure their stable isotopes and find out what the ants were eating. The researchers learned that some urban ant species are forgoing their usual diet of dead bugs in favor of Big Macs and milkshakes.

Everything we eat leaves its mark in our bodies in the form of stable isotopes. For example, corn—even in the form of corn oil, corn syrup, and corn-fed beef and chicken—is easy to spot. Animals that have eaten a lot of corn-based foods will have a much higher ratio of C13 to C12 isotopes than those that don’t. And let’s be clear: Americans are eating a lot of corn. A 2008 study measured stable isotopes in foods and drinks from Burger King, McDonalds, and Wendy’s meals all over America. They found corn in almost everything from Burger King and McDonald’s, and in every single item from Wendy’s.

Dr. Penick saw this as an opportunity. “You can take a hair sample from a human in New York City and one from someone in London and you can tell them apart based on their carbon isotopes and the corn in their diet,” he says. His team wondered if the same thing would work for ants.

The scientists were most interested in Tetramorium sp. E, the species commonly known as the pavement or picnic ant. Little is known about pavement ants other than their incredible adaptability, which has allowed them to set up shop in cities worldwide. “They’re like pigeons or rats,” says Dr. Penick.

The results were unsurprising, but quite clear: Pavement ants and most other species had stopped scavenging dead insects and had started scavenging our fallen french fries. “The chemical makeup of their bodies changed,” Dr. Penick says. “They looked more like humans because they were eating the same foods.”

This is probably not great for the ants, but it could be great news for us. In a paper published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Penick and his colleagues write, “The average person living in a city will produce nearly half a metric ton of garbage this year, and of that, 15 percent will be food waste.” By gobbling up what we leave behind, ants are doing us a service. Just how much are they actually eating?

Naturally, scientists can tell us. In 2014, another team of researchers left weighed samples of hot dogs, cookies and potato chips on NYC sidewalks. After 24 hours, they weighed what was left, and the results were staggering: “We calculate that the arthropods on medians down the Broadway/West St. Corridor alone could consume more than 2100 pounds of discarded junk food, the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs, every year—assuming they take a break in the winter.”

On the other hand, says Penick, the volume of our delicious trash is keeping the ants and their garbage-eating colleagues around. “If we weren’t dropping this food,” he said, “how many ants would be in our cities? How many pigeons? How many rats?”

“We don’t really think too much about what happens when we drop part of our lunch on the sidewalk,” he says, “but the cumulative effects of all of these actions of thousands of people every day can have a pretty significant impact on the species that live alongside us. When we consider a city as an ecosystem, it’s important to include humans and our actions.”

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Animals
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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