Nature’s Waste Management Crews

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

AntsOne of the biggest mistakes my husband made as a new father was to tell me he thought his diaper-changing technique was better than mine. From then on, guess who assumed the lion’s share of diaper patrol in our household? Or rather, the northern flicker’s share. According to a new report in the journal Animal Behaviour on the sanitation habits of these tawny, 12-inch woodpeckers with downcurving bills, male flickers are more industrious housekeepers than their mates. Researchers already knew that flickers, like many woodpeckers, are a so-called sex role reversed species, the fathers spending comparatively more time incubating the eggs and feeding the young than do the mothers. Now scientists have found that the males’ parental zeal also extends to the less sentimental realm of nest hygiene: When a chick makes waste, Dad, more readily than Mom, is the one who makes haste, plucking up the unwanted presentation and disposing of it far from home.

Researchers have identified honeybee undertakers that specialize in removing corpses from the hive, and they have located dedicated underground toilet chambers to which African mole rats reliably repair to perform their elaborate ablutions. Among chimpanzees, hygiene often serves as a major driver of cultural evolution, and primatologists have found that different populations of the ape are marked by distinctive grooming styles. The chimpanzees in the Tai Forest of Ivory Coast, for example, will extract a tick or other parasite from a companion’s fur with their fingers and then squash the offending pest against their own forearms. Chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest of Uganda prefer to daintily place the fruits of grooming on a leaf for inspection, to decide whether the dislodged bloodsuckers are safe to eat, or should simply be smashed and tossed. Budongo males, those fastidious charmers, will also use leaves as “napkins,” to wipe their penises clean after sex.

More here.