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London Zoo: The sting of defense

London Zoo: The sting of defense

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"Cet animal est très méchant. Quand on l'attaque il se défend." is a quote from La Ménagerie, a burlesque song from 1868. The translation is, "This animal is very bad. When attacked it defends itself," which pretty much sums up how most people feel about everything from snake bites to jellyfish stings.

People typically object to a bear charging and attacking when it has been startled or feel enraged when a scorpion stings the bare foot that stepped on it. Naturally, pain and fear have a tendency to make us angry and to prompt us to feel that what was done to us was not right or not fair. I dislike being hurt or scared as much as anyone, so I understand how the thought, "How dare they?" comes to mind.

I don't think of it that way, though. When I learn about defensive behavior of animals, and even when I'm on the receiving end of it, I am thrilled and awed by what they can do (though sometimes pretty upset, too). Defense is the area of animal behavior that most fascinates me.

Consider a defense that most people despise -- those hateful wasp stings. I know a thing or two about both the pain and wonder of their stings since the title of my doctoral dissertation was "The Defensive Behavior of Tropical Social Wasps." Yes, I got stung a lot during my research, and yes, it hurt. No, I wasn't surprised that I was stung, and no, I didn't always take it gracefully. I yelled and said things that don't make me proud. I dropped my field notebook and any other supplies I was holding and generally made an idiot of myself.

But I was always intrigued by so many aspects of the defense of stinging wasps, even when I was still reeling from the pain. For example, only female wasps sting. Males do not have this defense, so people who say, "He stung me!" are talking nonsense, though to call them on this detail while they are suffering from the pain of a sting is tactless in the extreme. (Do mention it later though -- education is never a waste!)

A honeybee can sting only one time, and then she dies. Wasps, though, can sting you over and over. Horrible, you say? I prefer the term "remarkable."

A true marvel of the sting as a defense mechanism is that the level of pain is completely out of proportion to the actual harm caused. The extreme pain of the sting suggests serious damage. However, except in the case of allergic reactions (which can cause anaphylactic shock, a true medical emergency that can even be fatal), the injury is actually minor. Sure, the pain is intense, but the damage is typically no more than a little redness and swelling.

So wasps are able to defend themselves because stings cause pain rather than because stings cause injuries which result in pain. It's an example of a deception that's incredible if you think about it, however painful it might be if you experience it.

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a certified applied animal behaviorist, certified pet dog trainer, author, and an adjunct faculty in NAU's Department of Biological Sciences.

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