Inner Nature: Cannibalism – proscribed or protein?

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times Expose a young mouse mother to a stressful stimulus – say a sudden loud noise – and she may eat her own pups. Rough for the young. But what turns a mother from nurture to cannibalism in an instant? Bees will also eat their young – younger larvae first – under some circumstances ([1]). And humans too. Why do they do it? Cannibalism, which is the consumption...

Inner Nature: Wasps, ants and bees

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times Summer. A time to kick back, relax and read, or listen to podcasts. I enjoy podcasts, especially science podcasts. Two of my favorites are The Infinite Monkey Cage from the BBC and Ologies with Alie Ward. Both are erudite but also light-hearted and don’t take themselves too seriously – which is one of the failings of politicians, economists and some scientists,...

Inner Nature: The nature of instinct

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times One of the unexpected sights driving around my neighborhood in Chester county is seeing an adult male peacock with a magnificent tail walking about the streets. Peacocks are native to the tropics, and are the national bird of India. This peacock was probably bought as a pet, maybe as a pair, maybe alone. He’s since become feral, and has no partner. He has a big...

Inner Nature: Inosculation

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times I was taking a walk the other day (in a tropical country) and came across limbs from two trees that had twisted around each other and had actually grown into each other, presumably sharing their vasculature at the point of contact. These kisses are termed inosculation. It happens when the bark between the abutted limbs wears away due to friction and the vascular...

Inner Nature: Poisonous and venomous animals

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times I am in India. It’s a vibrant and bustling place. This month, a couple of friends and I are planning a trip to a wildlife sanctuary in Southern India*. We hope to see tigers and a plethora of other animals and plants. What I am hoping we do not encounter closely are mosquitoes and snakes. I do not like mosquitoes, but I do like snakes, in principle. But many snakes...

Inner Nature: Eggs and Seeds

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times I was working in my garden, doing the regular maintenance tasks of weeding and planning my fall plantings. I was planning on gathering seeds from some of my favorite flowers to replant. As I worked, I’d disturb a rock or something (a military joke) and find a germinating weed seed, or a cluster of ants eggs. They were everywhere. Seeds and eggs. Then it struck...

Inner Nature: Gender and Stereotypes

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times Human behavior is not completely governed by biological sex. People experience a remarkable natural degree of behavioral freedom which, however, is held in check by the expectations of society. Without comparable societal structures, to what degree do other animal species experience sex-based roles? Are sex-based roles in nature invariable, interchangeable, or nonexistent? To...

Inner Nature: Feats of strength

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times As the weather warms, we watch bees collecting and hauling fat baskets of pollen back to their hives. Bumblebees, with their improbably large bodies hover on whirring, buzzing wings that seem barely adequate to the purpose of elevating, never mind transporting their bulk. Ants swarm kitchen counters and picnics and carry away remarkably large portions of bounty...

Inner Nature: Parasitic control of host behavior

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times We act, we think, rationally. But our thoughts are subject to manipulation: by new ideas, new experiences, psychoactive drugs, and … parasites. Parasites are organisms that take up residence in a host, and then proceed to use the host’s energy to replicate themselves and spread. If the host is killed as part of the process, then the parasite must find some way...

Inner Nature: Vaccine Formulations

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times In early October, I was listening to Weekend Edition on National Public Radio when an interview with the Executive Director of Shark Allies, Stefanie Brendl, came on the air [1]. Her concern was urgent: a world-wide coronavirus vaccine that could contain the ingredient squalene, isolated from from shark livers, could lead to over a half-million sharks being harvested...