Insect Panama Papers? Corruption Exists Among Animals, Too
Even the most cooperative species find ways to stab each other in the back.
Humans are a cooperative species by nature, but no doubt there are many individuals who prioritize their own interests to the detriment of the greater good. Look no further than the recent news around the "Panama Papers," a 2.6-terabyte data leak from the law firm Mossack Fonseca documenting how companies, political leaders, wealthy individuals and even criminals hide their assets.
Corruption isn't exclusively a human vice, though; animals do it, too. Even eusocial species - highly organized, cooperative animals that share in the responsibility of raising offspring and have a clear division of labor - will cheat each other when given the opportunity.
Take ants, for example. A model of cooperation in the animal kingdom, ants cluster into highly organized colonies, with labor divided among workers, soldiers, drones and a queen. A 2008 study on leaf-cutter ants published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, found the ant world rampant with cheating and corruption.
How exactly does an ant cheat the system to get ahead? While researchers had believed that all larvae had the opportunity to develop into queens so long as they were fed certain foods, DNA fingerprinting found that the offspring of some ant fathers were more likely to become queens than others, according to biologist Bill Hughes, then of the University of Leeds. These ants possess a "royal" gene that gives them an advantage over other ants, cheating the others out of a chance to become queens.
These royal genes are exceedingly rare within an ant colony, "an evolutionary strategy by the cheaters to escape suppression by the altruistic masses they exploit," Hughes said.
Bees aren't much better. Like ants, bees exist in stratified societies, separated across workers, drones and a queen. Offspring within a colony are produced entirely by the queen, a kinship meant to hold together bees' social structure - or at least that's how it's supposed to work.
According to a 2009 study published in Molecular Ecology, worker bees within the species Melipona scutellaris, a stingless Brazilian bee, will reproduce behind the queen's back. The study, which examined the lineage of 600 males across 45 colonies, found that nearly a quarter of the bees were sons of workers rather than the queen. Rather than cooperating, the workers were instead in conflict with their queen.
Reproduction isn't really about passing genes on to the next generation in this case. Instead, worker bees that are reproducing live almost three times longer than those that don't, nearly matching the life expectancy of the queen. The reason why is that reproducing worker bees usually do a lot less work and avoid potentially dangerous tasks like foraging. The individual benefits for reproductive worker bees come at a cost for the entire colony, of course. The more worker bees there are reproducing, the lower the collective production of the colony and the worse off everyone is.
This reproductive tug-of-war between workers and queens isn't unique to Melipona scutellaris. A 2013 study on honeybees (Apis mellifera) found evidence of a similar conflict.
Cheaters do have an evolutionary advantage, but too many of them within a population can lead to conflict with cooperators, found a study on the social amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum, published last year in Current Biology.
Thousands of otherwise lonesome Dicty, also known as slime mold, gather to form a multicellular slug and then a body made up of a stalk with spores in order to reproduce. Some amoebae die after becoming cells in the stalk, but those that rise up to form spores pass on their genes.
When unrelated amoebae join together, some intentionally contribute to the spores over the stalk. These cheaters should be reproducing in greater numbers, but they're not. In fact, what researchers found through a genetic analysis was something of a stalemate between cheaters and cooperators, with the latter group pressured to push back against freeloaders.
As more information comes out about the individuals and organizations listed in the "Panama Papers," and with future corruption scandals that will inevitably follow, try to remember: Those same cheaters are no different than insects or slime.
The U.S. Geological Survey is posting photos of insects on its
, offering a macro look at this hidden world. First up, this Festive Tiger Beetle (
) was found on top of a butte in Badlands National Park that had ancient windblown sand at its crest. Here, this sand specialist can build its long burrows.
This Agapostemon bee species is one of the most common native bees in the eastern United States. In almost any field there can be hundreds, if not thousands, of these bees visiting a wide variety of blooming plants. One of the largest of the sweat bees, it still goes undetected if you don't get down on your knees, face close, among the flowers. This one was collected at Colorado National Monument, Mesa County, Colo.
This wild bee (
), a female from Grand Tetons National Park, was collected as part of a study of climate change. Most species in this genus are black , but a few, like this one, are as the Latin in name implies, glittering jewels.
This unknown wasp was collected in Cecil County, Md.
This is an unknown species of Robber Fly from Charles County, Md. Robber flies, a very large and widespread type of fly, feed on many different kinds of insects, making them a key player in maintaining the insect balance in different environments.
One species of the rarely seen leafcutting bee, this is
from the sandhills of North Carolina. Leafcutter bees are so called because they cut plant leaves to create the cells in their nests. The bees tend to build their homes in rotted wood or in the strong stems of plants.
is a type of jumping spider. This one was found in Beltsville, Md., but
lives in fields and prairies across North America. It feeds on seasonal plants.
Eggplant Tortoise Beetles like eggplants (go figure), eating holes in the plants' leaves. From the underside, the insects look quite queenly, with their ruffled collars. This one was gathered at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in Anne Arundel County, Md.
The Karner blue butterfly,
Lycaeides melissa samuelis
, is endangered. Karner blue butterflies feed on nectar from many different types of flowers, but their larvae can survive on the leaves of only one specific plant, which has been decimated by habitat loss or change.
Deer flies like this one, despite their groovy eyes, deliver a ferocious bite. And no wonder: when the female bites (males don't bite), she lacerates the skin and when the blood flows, sponges it up with her mouth. There are over 110 species of deer fly.
Centris bees, like this one, make their homes in holes, either in trees or in the ground.
The biggest visual difference between damselflies and dragonflies are their wing positions when resting. Dragonflies hold their wings open, while damselflies close them above their backs. This Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly (
) was found on a Beltsville, Md. stream.