Some people enjoy
strange relationships with animals that most of us might like to steer
clear of, and in Animal Magic (xxx details this week) Rebecca Stott
bravely sets off to investigate.
My friend John
Maynard Smith would have loved this series. He was a brilliant
biologist, and claimed in the last years of his life to be studying
the behaviour of ants, bees, worms, and snails, in what he called ‘The
Institute for the Study of Tiny Minds.’
Rebecca meets a
man from Florida who is building a brain from the nerve cells of
leeches, which are apparently often used in plastic surgery to promote
blood flow, though an expert on medical history advises that if you
use leeches to treat haemorrhoids you should tie a string to them
Leeches are old
friends of mine; I filmed with a dozen of them in a reconstruction of
the amazing Tempest Prognosticator made by Dr George Merryweather for
the Great Exhibition of 1851. Each leech was in a jamjar, and the
theory was that when a thunderstorm approached they would crawl
upwards, apparently to avoid possible floods. At the top of its jamjar
the leech would press on a small whalebone lever that would release a
hammer to ring a bell, and if you heard several clangs you could be
sure a thunderstorm was imminent. When I saw them they rang no bells,
and there was no thunderstorm, but I am not sure that proved anything.
Rebecca goes on
to investigate whether rat genes could be used to generate an
aftershave that would make men irresistible, finds out how to paint
ants for identification, and samples the allegedly aphrodisiac
chocolate-coated leaf-cutter ants from Colombia.
There’s a unique
mammalian Madagascan cockroach - it suckles it babies - not to be
confused with the three-inch long Madagascan Hissing Cockroach, which
is interviewed in the programme. As you may know, cockroaches survive
in very thin air, and have been suggested as ideal colonists for a
greenhouse on Mars, if any of the astronauts can work out how to build
the thing from a flatpack.
Finally, a hot
tip for Rebecca and anyone tempted to follow in her footsteps: if you
get slug slime on your hands, don’t try to wash it off; this doesn’t
work. Instead wipe it off dry, or try to roll it into little balls and
throw them away.