15 mya: Oecophylla

Rose Thumboor - oecophylla smaragdina making an emergency bridge between two plants (2015)    Basile Morin - Nest of oecophylla smaragdina made of green leaves welded together (2018)

Up to hundreds of weaver ants…line up side by side in militarily precise rows. They grip the edge of one leaf with the claws and pads of their hindlegs and the edge of the other with their jaws and forelegs, and haul the two edges together. When the gap between the leaves is wider than the length of an ant, the workers use another, even more impressive tactic…: they chain their bodies together to form living bridges. The lead worker seizes a leaf edge with her mandibles and holds fast. The next worker then climbs down her body, grips her waist, and holds on. A third worker now climbs down to grip the second worker’s waist, and so on ant upon ant, until chains ten workers long or more are formed, often swinging free in the wind. When an ant at the end of the chain finally reaches the edge of the distant leaf, she fastens her mandibles onto it, closing the span of the living bridge, and all the entrained force begins to haul back in an attempt to bring the two leaves together. Sometimes the gap can be closed with a single chain, but usually several such large ensembles are needed, with nestmates working side by side. Some of the workers return from the site of activity to recruit nestmates by means of odor trails. They lay the trail substances not only over the leaves and twigs but over the bodies of the ants forming the chains. Soon a living sheet of ants is formed, and it presents a startling spectacle, its surface rippling with the slight movement of thousands of legs and antennae….

Now other weaver-ant workers move into position to apply the white “glue”…—threads of silk provided by the grublike larvae of the colony. How the silk is applied is the most amazing behavior of all in the repertory of the weaver ants, and the appropriate source of their vernacular name. The larvae recruited are in the final stages of development, following the last shedding of their skin as part of the growth process and prior to the next molt that will transform them into a pupa and inaugurate their changeover to the six-legged adult body form. In the nest-building process, such individuals are picked up by major workers, members of the larger of the two adult worker castes, and carried out to the leaf edges. Holding the larvae gently in their mandibles, the workers move their young charges back and forth across the leaf edges. The larvae respond by exuding threads of silk from a slit-shaped nozzle just below the mouth. Thousands of such threads stuck into place side by side spread as a whole into a sheet between the edges, in time to become a powerful adhesive that binds the leaves in place.

The choreography of silk spinning that ensues is a swift, precise pas de deux. The worker approaches the edge of the leaf while holding the larva in her mandibles so that the larva’s head projects well out in front, as though it were an extension of her own body. The tips of her antennae are brought down to converge on the leaf edge. For two-tenths of a second the tips play along the surface, not unlike the hands of a blindfolded person feathering the edge of a table to gain a sense of position and shape. Then the worker brings the larva’s head down to touch the surface. One second later she lifts it again. During this interval the worker vibrates the tips of her antennae around the larva’s head, touching it lightly about ten times. The subtle tapping is apparently a signal for the larva to release the silk. We are not certain that the movement contains such a command, but while it is occurring the larva does release a minute quantity of silk, which automatically sticks to the leaf surface.

An instant before the larva is lifted from the leaf’s edge, the worker raises and spreads her antennae. Then she turns her body and carries the larva directly to the edge of the opposing leaf, causing the silk to be drawn out as a thread. When she reaches this second surface, she repeats her earlier movements almost exactly. This time the larva touches the silk to the leaf and fastens the thread. Then both worker and larva return like tango dancers to the first edge to recommence the cycle. And so on metronomically, en masse, a rhythmic army of workers and larvae toils day after day, pulling together and sealing hundreds of pavilions across the great canopy empire. The ants add silken tunnels and rooms within the pavilions to create even tighter, more elaborate living quarters.

Weaver ant nest in the trees

In 1964 Mary Leakey (doyenne of the Kenyan family of paleobiologists that has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the fossil history of man) sent Wilson a partial fossil colony of an extinct species of Oecophylla she had found during the search for early human remains. The age of the ant remains was approximately 15 million years. The fossils consisted of numerous fragments of different life stages and castes closely resembling those of the modern African and Asian weaver ants. The pupae were naked. That is, the larvae, like those of modern species, had spun no cocoons. Also, fragments of fossilized leaves were mingled with the ants. It thus appears that long ago a pavilion of weaver ants fell from a tree into a pool of water which was then covered by a rapidly congealing calcareous sediment. If that much is true, the unique social system by which Oecophylla weaver ants dominate the tropical canopy today appears to have been in place 10 million years before the origin of humanity.

—Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson: Journey to the Ants (1994)

Photo sources here, here, and here.

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1965: It Was Always Saturday

Steve Young - Perky Pat Paraphernalia

He was Walt. He owned a Jaguar XXB sports ship with a flat-out velocity of fifteen thousand miles an hour. His shirts came from Italy and his shoes were made in England. As he opened his eyes he looked for the little G.E. clock TV set by his bed; it would be on automatically, tuned to the morning show of the great newsclown Jim Briskin. In his flaming red wig Briskin was already forming on the screen. Walt sat up, touched a button which swung his bed, altered to support him in a sitting position, and lay back to watch for a moment the program in progress.

“I’m standing here at the corner of Van Ness and Market in downtown San Francisco;’ Briskin said pleasantly, “and we’re just about to view the opening of the exciting new subsurface conapt building Sir Francis Drake, the first to be entirely underground. With us, to dedicate the building, standing right by me is that enchanting female of ballad and—”

Walt shut off the TV, rose, and walked barefoot to the window; he drew the shades, saw out then onto the warm, sparkling early-morning San Francisco street, the hills and white houses. This was Saturday morning and he did not have to go to his job down in Palo Alto at Ampex Corporation; instead—and this rang nicely in his mind—he had a date with his girl, Pat Christensen, who had a modern little apt over on Potrero Hill.

It was always Saturday.

In the bathroom he splashed his face with water, then squirted on shave cream, and began to shave. And, while he shaved, staring into the mirror at his familiar features, he saw a note tacked up, in his own hand.


And the note was signed Sam Regan.

An illusion, he thought, pausing in his shaving. In what way? He tried to think back; Sam Regan and Mars, a dreary colonists’ hovel…yes, he could dimly make the image out, but it seemed remote and vitiated and not convincing. Shrugging, he resumed shaving, puzzled, now, and a little depressed. All right, suppose the note was correct; maybe he did remember that other world, that gloomy quasi-life of involuntary expatriation in an unnatural environment. So what? Why did he have to wreck this? Reaching, he yanked down the note, crumpled it and dropped it into the bathroom disposal chute.

—Philip K. Dick: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965)

Art by Steve Young.

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1945: With These Blows of My Hammer


On September 14, 1945, trade unionist Paul Bebert, a former concentration camp prisoner, destroyed the swastikas that Nazis has affixed to union offices in Hamburg. He read this statement to the crowd:

With these blows of my hammer I will remove these toxic symbols of National Socialism from the spiritual coat of arms of the working class in Hamburg. May this symbolic action add to the realization that the poison of Nazi propaganda must be completely eliminated from the German people. For this is the only path that can lead us to becoming a truly free and democratic Germany. (source)

Born in 1893, Berbert had first become a union member in 1911 when he worked as a laborer; by 1924 he was serving on the union’s board.

On May 2, 1933, Hitler outlawed trade unions in Germany. Police units occupied union offices in Germany, arrested union officials, and confiscated union funds. Berbert was one of the first arrested and was sent to the Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel concentration camp. Released after four months, he became a member of the resistanceand was again arrested and imprisoned in 1935; this time he was sentenced to two years in the Esterwegen-Papenburg camp for “high treason.” Toward the end of the war, he was conscripted into forced labor and given the dangerous work of cleaning up after air-raids.

After the war, he became chairman of the Hamburg construction workers union and was elected to the Hamburg Parliament as a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD); he also served in many leadership roles in the community.  He died on May 3, 1976

Most sources I’ve found date this moment as September 14, 1945, but this video of the event has the date as July 1946.

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1944: The Drop

Albert Richards - The Drop (1944)

Albert Richards: The Drop (1944)

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1972: Irinaland over the Balkans

Friedensreich Hundertwasser - Irinaland über dem Balkan (1971-1972)

Friedensreich Hundertwasser: Irinaland over the Balkans (1971-1972)

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1930: Plant

Aleksander Vasilievich Kuprin - G. I. Petrovsky Metallurgy Plant, Dnepropetrovsk (1930)

Aleksander Vasilievich Kuprin: G. I. Petrovsky Metallurgy Plant, Dnepropetrovsk (1930)

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1873: Sunset

Armand Guillaumin - Soleil couchant à Ivry (1873)

Armand Guillaumin: Sunset over Ivry (1873)

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