Sunday SciKu | Ageless Ants

Cr: Unsplash (CC0)

This week’s prompt on the Rattlecast was to write a poem about a parasite, and time was short, so I combined it with the Sunday sciku and just wrote one poem.

Apparently there’s always an abundance of science articles about parasites, because I easily found a dozen in just the last few days. In the most interesting, researchers at Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz found a tapeworm infection that somehow extends the lifespans of worker ants. These ants are so small that a colony of around 100 make their nest inside as single acorn, but individuals can be infected with as many as 70 of these tapeworms at a time. Infections by Anomotaenia brevis turn the ants yellow, slow the aging process, and trick their sister ants into feeding and grooming them like queens, allowing them to live for several years, rather than several months. We don’t know how it works, but the assumption is that the tapeworm turns on certain ant genes that govern aging and pheromone release—basically turning the regular workers into imposter queens.

What the tapeworm gains by doing this is also unknown, but eventually being consumed by woodpeckers is part of the Anomotaenia brevis life cycle, so we can speculate that these changes make it more likely an ant will ultimately be eaten rather than die of by other means. My hunch is that the loss of brown pigment makes the ants easier for woodpeckers to spot, while the longer lifespan gives them more time to be spotted. Toxoplasma gondii works this way in mice, altering the rodent’s brain chemistry to make them less fearful of cats, so that they’re more likely to be eaten, continuing the parasite’s lifecycle by transporting it back into the cat, where it reproduces.

All of this begs the question, if a tapeworm can extend the lifespan of an ant it infects, why can’t we figure out how to extend the lifespan of humans?

The sciku is a rengay—an American version of the renga developed by Garry Gay. Normally a rengay would be alternate between two authors, putting a series of haiku into a kind of conversation. This one, instead, alternates between an imagined ant and the tapeworm infecting it.


The Ant and the Tapeworm

Temnothorax nylanderi
Anomotaenia brevis

my sisters fill the cup
of an acorn

a cup full of cup
nesting dolls

passing cloud—
the woodpecker’s shadow
moving on

even the dew
is collecting the dew,
worker bee

the drone of the drones
always dying

a yellow leaf
softened by rainwater—
fountain of youth

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