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Monday, April 21, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2008
OP-ED

Vittachi
Only in Asia
By Nury Vittachi

The Malaysian ant teaches us all how to go out with a bang

There are people who think the total destruction of human civilisation through global warming might actually be a bad thing.

But there you go. People can be weird.

Yet everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, even if they are wrong.

But I was intrigued to hear one theory about human self-destruction that leads us to one of the world's most curious creatures: the Malaysian ant, known to scientists as camponotus saundersi.

Most creatures have some sort of self-defense mechanism. Attack a snake and it will spit poison at you; scare a squid and it will squirt ink at you; criticise certain Singaporeans and they will shoot out a stream of lawyers at you.

If you attack this Malaysian ant, it explodes. This is how it works. Big bug attacks ant. Ant runs away. Bug pursues ant. Ant stops and turns. Bug approaches, taking out knife, fork and ketchup sachet. Ant explodes, looking smug and killing larger bug.

As defense techniques go, the Malaysian ant's system works well. There's only one drawback, which smart readers may already have spotted: the triumphant winner ends up spread in tiny pieces over the forest floor.

There are several examples of exploding animals in nature -- such as whales, cows and King William I of England -- but these all die before exploding. It is only the Malaysian ant which is one moment swaggering along the road thinking, "I am the master of the universe and I can prove it any time I want to" and is the next moment 2,000 bits of organic dust, each of which is thinking: "Oh bother. Bang goes that nice evening I was planning hanging out with the queen."

Scientists think the Malaysian ant is making an unconscious decision to sacrifice its life for the colony. And some believe that human beings are making the same unconscious decision to wipe themselves off the Earth for the sake of the planet.

If humanity does destroy itself, the globe will almost definitely be taken over by ants, which already make up some 20 percent of the world's biomass.

One just hopes they won't all be Malaysian ants. Can you imagine what would happen if an alien lands and looks at them the wrong way? They could get very upset and -- bang --there goes the planet.

Incidentally, there was plague of exploding toads in Germany recently, a reader tells me. Scientists discovered that a generation of toads had got into the habit of misjudging the amount of air they should take in to puff themselves up, and ended up accidentally blowing themselves to pieces. This is perhaps the ultimate example of how a small mistake can spoil your whole day.

The discovery that creatures can puff themselves up so much that they explode has interesting implications. I hope it applies to humans, too. Think about the leader of North Korea, whose birth allegedly caused the stars to bow down.

Kim Jong Il: "As Supreme Leader of the richest, most developed, most advanced civilisation in the universe, I would just like to say -- "

(A loud explosion shakes the hall.)

First audience member: "Where'd he go?"

Second audience member: "I don't know. Why is there steaming blubber draped on your shoulder?"

First audience member: "No idea. I don't remember putting it on this morning."

Readers may explode with laughter, or boredom, at our columnists' website: www.vittachi.com.

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