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Of zombie snails and confused branches

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Sometimes the inspiration for a piece or series comes from unexpected sources. I love the BBC nature programs with David Attenborough. He has such a brilliant, humorous way of showing not only the beauty, but also some real oddities of nature. In The Trials of Life-A Natural History of Behaviour Part 7 David Attenborough presents some amazing examples of strange and ingenious arrangements between animals of entirely different species. Often both of the parties profit from the deal, but more often one participant exploits the other. In many cases it is hard to tell…

For instance, the hermit crab needs to find an empty seashell to have some protection against predators in the sea. However the shell alone provides no security from the octopus, which has the hermit crab on its list of most favourite dishes and can easily pull the crab out of its house. But one kind of hermit crab found a remarkable way of fending off the octopus. David Attenborough explains: “This species of hermit crab recruits a bodyguard. Anemones have stings and their tentacle stings are quite strong enough to repel an octopus. Since the crab wonders about a great deal, its bodyguard to be any good has to travel with it. It’s not easy to unstick an anemone from a rock, but the crab knows the trick. You have to tickle it around the edge of its bottom. You can tell that the anemone isn’t particularly alarmed by this procedure, because it hasn’t closed up and is still confidently waving its tentacles.” This hermit crab packs not only one but three anemones onto its shell. The attacking octopus hesitates for a moment and then seems to decide that it is not worth it and swims off. The hermit crab successfully provided itself with a portable protection system, and maybe the anemone likes the change of scenery, who knows.

Even more fascinating: A species of tree ant in Australia shows a very peculiar behaviour towards a specific kind of caterpillar. Normally a caterpillar would be ripped apart by the ants, but this caterpillar is being well protected by them, even birds dare not to attack it. The caterpillar has a nipple on its back, which produces honey dew and the ants apparently love to drink it. To insure the ants that they are dealing with the right kind of caterpillar, the caterpillar is not only making a buzzing vibration, but also ejects a pheromone from two little tentacles, which seem to keep the ants happy and calm. The ants even build a shelter for their precious cow: “First a team (of ants) bridges two leaves and slowly pulls them together. Others arrive carrying grubs, which they gently squeeze, so that the grubs are stimulated to produce a sticky silk. By passing the grubs back and forth, they weave a fabric that holds the two leaves together. … When it is complete, they guide the caterpillar into it. Once in its shed, it will be safe for the night.” So these ants have not only developed a sophisticated technique including tools and complex teamwork to build their own nest, but they also take care of their caterpillars like farmers care for their farm animals. In this case it is clearly a win win situation.

For me the most intriguing part of the program though is also a very gruesome one: A parasitic worm called Leucochloridium paradoxum found an elaborate way of spreading from host to host. The final host are birds, but the parasite uses snails as alternate hosts, turning them into some kind of zombies, which are acting according to the parasites benefit and will. The snails took in the parasite with some bird droppings. The parasite pushes into the snails’ tentacles, transforming them into throbbing, swollen and colourful targets. It is very probable that the parasite is mimicking caterpillars, which would make a nutritious meal for every bird. David Attenborough explains that “as the sun shines brighter, the parasite extends a striped muscular bag packed with tiny larvae into the snails tentacle. If it has the choice, it nearly always picks the left one. Birds rarely eat whole snails, they are far too big and few can extract them from their shells. Nonetheless the larvae must reach the body of another bird to develop further. For some reason the presence of the parasite changes the snail’s behaviour. As the day wears on it does not, like other snails, crawl back into the cool undergrowth out of harms way. Instead it remains exposed out in the open.” The birds are highly attracted by this curiosity served on a platter and don’t hesitate to eat the snails tentacles, by that they get infected of course and the circle is complete.

confused branches 1

I find it really remarkable how highly specialized this parasite managed to develope its technique. And isn’t it a really creepy thought that a creature living inside another controls the other’s mind? Making it behave in a way which leads directly to its doom. Do we maybe also have parasites in us, which change us, our thoughts and feelings and therfore also our actions? The yeast parasite candida albicans for instance, feeds on sugar and most of us have it inside our digestive system. The urge to eat sweet stuff can at times become overwhelming and almost uncontrollable. Is this maybe the funghi increasing our own desire for sugar and carbohydrates, so that it can thrive?

In any case these images stayed with me for a while and found their way directly into my work. The Confused Branches- necklaces are a part of the Karma Chroma- series, in which I connect natural materials (in this case wood) with small Graffiti-scales. I had the idea of a multicoloured parasite, maybe even of alien origin, which makes tree branches change their colours and grow in circles. The stone-like colours and structures I chose for the branches make them also appear as if the wood mineralized or calcified. As to the question why the parasite is doing this, I have a couple of theories, but I would like it to stay a mystery, just another unsolved puzzle, like the ones our nature provides us with in endless numbers…

Confused Branches 2

confused branches 3

1 Carina Shoshtary: Confused Branches 3 (detail), necklace, 2015; Wood, graffiti, silver, paint;
33 cm x 25 cm x 9 cm; Photo: Mirei Takeuchi
2 Carina Shoshtary: Confused Branches 1, necklace, 2014; Wood, graffiti, silver, paint;
40 cm x 22 cm x 5 cm; Photo: Mirei Takeuchi
3 Carina Shoshtary: Confused Branches 2, necklace, 2015; Wood, graffiti, silver, paint;
26,5 cm x 19,5 cm x 5,5 cm; Photo: Mirei Takeuchi
1 Carina Shoshtary: Confused Branches 3, necklace, 2015; Wood, graffiti, silver, paint;
33 cm x 25 cm x 9 cm; Photo: Mirei Takeuchi

Text edit: Hayley Grafflin

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