by Aditi Mishra – Curious as to what intoxication looks like for non-humans? If yes, then read on. Below is an ensemble of curious (somewhat whacky) scientific endeavors, sly parasites and funny accidents.
Spiders and psychedelics
In 1948, Swiss pharmacologist Peter N. Witt tested web spinning in spiders that were high on a range of psychoactive drugs. He gave the spiders, amphetamine, mescaline, strychnine, LSD, and caffeine. While these tests tell us nothing about the drugs – they do tell us a lot about spiders themselves.
Spiders on different drugs build different webs. Caffeine, for example, devastates web production, making the webs smaller and radii uneven. Since caffeine stops the production of octopamine in insects – an important neuromodulator, it is hardly surprising. Other drugs also reduced web regularity, but interestingly LSD in small doses increased web regularity.
In 1995, a team from NASA repeated Witt’s research on European garden spiders under the influence of caffeine, benzedrine, marijuana, and chloral hydrate. This time they used fractal theory to investigate if the complexity of spider’s brain signal and complexity of the web are correlated. They corroborated Witt’s work and also found that drugs affect web ornamentation (also known as stabilimentum).
A study investigating whether social insects can form drug dependency found out that they can. Two ant colonies were presented with a sucrose fading experiment. Basically the sugar solution presented to the ants contained less sugar as the days progressed. However one group had something else along with the sugar – morphine. The ants exposed to morphine kept coming back even when there was no sugar.
More conclusively, when addicted ants and control ants were given a choice of sugar and morphine, the addicts chose morphine 65% of the time while the control ants chose sugar most of the time. Morphine altered the dopamine levels of ants in ways similar to mammals. Dopamine is implicated in addiction in mammals as well.
While junkie ants do like morphine over sugar it is not conclusive yet if they develop substance dependence and withdrawal symptoms for morphine like humans.
Fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, are the favorite tool for most scientists. Hence it is was no surprise when scientists tried to develop a fly model for alcohol addiction. Turns out flies can develop vices. They increase alcohol consumption over time and would consume alcohol even when it had bitter substances added to it.
Flying Salt shakers of death
Scientists are not the only ones getting insects high. Fungal pathogens of cicadas are also doing the same. American cicadas have an interesting life, they spend up to 13 to 17 years underground feeding on plant roots before erupting simultaneously from the earth. While emerging, some of them are parasitized by the fungus Massospora. This fungus would over time grow inside the insect, consume its organs and dissolve the cicada’s abdomen. Converting the cicadas into storage units for fungal spores.
Despite all that, the cicadas keep flying around as if there were nothing wrong; all the while air dropping fungal spores on their brethren. Scientists think that the cicadas can keep going because the fungal plugs in the cicadas are loaded with the hallucinogen psilocybin. On a fun side note, Matt Kasson, the principal investigator of the cicadas overtaken by Massospora called them “flying saltshakers of death” in an interview with the Atlantic.
Bees that drink coffee
When bees ingest coffee at certain levels, they remember and locate floral scent much better.
Caffeine is usually a defense compound supposed to make plants too bitter for herbivores. However floral nectar also has caffeine, albeit, in concentrations that are high enough to be pharmacologically active but low enough that the flowers don’t taste bitter. Ultimately, bees remember the flowers better and visit the plant more often.
Hence flowers are the bees’ grocers and their Starbucks.
So this is my limited list on the times insects got high. If you want to know how other members of the animal kingdom handle their drugs… feel free to check out the following:
Nathanson, J. A. (1984). “Caffeine and related methylxanthines: possible naturally occurring pesticides”. Science. 226 (4671): 184–7. doi:10.1126/science.6207592. PMID 6207592.
Noever, R., J. Cronise, and R. A. Relwani. 1995. Using spider-web patterns to determine toxicity. NASA Tech Briefs 19(4):82. Published in New Scientist magazine, 29 April 1995
Entler, Brian V., J. Timothy Cannon, and Marc A. Seid. “Morphine addiction in ants: a new model for self-administration and neurochemical analysis.” Journal of Experimental Biology 219.18 (2016): 2865-2869.
Kaun, Karla R., Anita V. Devineni, and Ulrike Heberlein. “Drosophila melanogaster as a model to study drug addiction.” Human genetics 131.6 (2012): 959-975.
Cooley, John R., David C. Marshall, and Kathy BR Hill. “A specialized fungal parasite (Massospora cicadina) hijacks the sexual signals of periodical cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae: Magicicada).” Scientific reports 8.1 (2018): 1432.
Discovery of psychoactive plant and mushroom alkaloids in ancient fungal cicada pathogens. https://doi.org/10.1101/375105
Wright, G. A., et al. “Caffeine in floral nectar enhances a pollinator’s memory of reward.” Science 339.6124 (2013): 1202-1204.