The Wild File

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Q) Where do ants go in the winter?

Phin Hanson, Madison, WI

Most of the world’s 8,000 ant species live in hot climates, but those dwelling in cooler zones spend the winter in nests below or above ground, and their metabolism slows drastically. Where frosts are infrequent, ants typically build quarters above the dirt—as with weaver ants, which crash in "carton nests" of their own making. Residents of colder latitudes escape the freeze by cozying up in their often elaborate subterranean dens. Wood ants, for instance, like to stay near the surface by day—the entrance mound works as a solar collector—and descend below the frost line at night, as far as ten feet down. According to Joan M. Herbers, an ecology and biology professor at Ohio State University, there’s only one known cold-climate ant that stays above ground: the two-millimeter acorn ant. Colonies of 30 to 100 of these tiny fellas huddle inside small acorns or hollow sticks, where they stay put throughout the winter—if they didn’t, larger ants might come along and poach their crib. "Since possession is nine-tenths of the law," says Herbers, "they’re able to keep their homes in the face of intense competition."

Q) Can a river flow uphill?
Marshall Perry, San Francisco, CA

Gravity and other forces dictate that the overall course of a river is always from higher to lower, but water can run into conditions where it has nowhere to go but up. Scientists point to a giant scour hole in the Columbia River in Washington as evidence that catastrophic flooding during the last ice age made the extremely high river flow uphill for thousands of feet to escape the trough it was in. In our milder era, this happens only in limited stretches, but there are plenty of rivers that are known to reverse direction from time to time. In the case of a tidal bore, like the one in Canada’s Bay of Fundy, a strong rising tide can enter a river channel and push the water back upstream. And hydrometeorologist Jonathan J. Gourley, of the National Severe Storms Laboratory, in Norman, Oklahoma, says a localized downpour can cause sections of a river to be higher downstream than upstream, which sends the water back the way it came. But in the end, all that liquid must go with the flow.

Q) What place on earth is the farthest from land?
Mike McNeilly, Portsmouth, NH

Like many escapists before you, the locale you seek is Point Nemo, a watery coordinate in the South Pacific so dubbed by Hrvoje Lukatela, of the Calgary, Alberta, software company Geodyssey Limited. To pinpoint Nemo (named for the headstrong captain in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Lukatela input some ten million map points into the company’s Hipparchus program and "found the one whose distance to the closest point on land is the maximum." That spot turns out to be 48"52'32" south, 123"23'33" west—or exactly 1,670 miles from each of three landfalls: Maher Island, off the coast of Antarctica; Ducie Island, 325 miles east of Pitcairn Island; and Motu Nui, right next door to Chile’s Easter Island.

Q) Can any animal kill you without touching you?
Bernadette P. Rivero, West Hollywood, CA

In theory. In the Amazon, for example, you could run into an angry mob of electric eels, which can discharge up to 600 volts into the water, enough to stop a weak heart. You could get too close to a sperm whale, which stuns small prey with sonic blasts—it might knock you silly, and then drowning would be a concern. And snakes like the African black-necked spitting cobra, which can blind you with a well-aimed snootful of toxin, could conceivably do you in. But no such freak deaths have been reported. There are, however, two cases of monkeys killing people by throwing things. Both happened in Malaysia, at the hands of macaques who’d been trained to fetch coconuts, but who protested their forced servitude by hurling them instead.

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