Beetle behinds, flamingo friendships, and other wonders

These novel research findings range from a fly’s brain and an ant’s rear end to the footsteps of human ancestors and the bonds among flamingos.

When colonies of hundreds of thousands of army ants go on the march, with them go symbionts that sponge off the army’s resources—and members. One symbiont found in Costa Rica was hiding in plain sight: a beetle that clamps its mandibles around the ant’s middle and rides along, looking like a double-vision version of the ant’s backside. —Patricia Edmonds

The avian world’s pink-feathered icons form long-lasting, loyal friendships, scientists recently discovered. The flamingo bonds vary, from mated couples that build nests and raise chicks each year to same-sex friends or groups of three to six close buddies. The relationships, characterized by standing close together, may last decades. Like humans, flamingos befriend those they get along with and avoid those that cause squabbles. —Virginia Morell

Nine miles north of the volcano called Ol Doinyo Lengai, which means “mountain of God,” researchers funded by the National Geographic Society have cataloged a rare find: more than 400 fossil footprints laid down by humans who walked and jogged across mudflats 10,000 to 19,000 years ago. Discovered along the shore of Tanzania’s Lake Natron by local villager Kongo Sakkae, the Engare Sero site lets scientists “really start to see social behavioral patterns in our Homo sapiens ancestors,” says team leader Cynthia Liutkus-Pierce, a geologist at Appalachian State University. One set of tracks reveals 17 people walking toward the southwest, 14 of whom were probably adult women. That suggests a female-led foraging party, a division of labor used by some modern hunter-gatherers. To save Engare Sero’s trackways from erosion, researchers have 3D-scanned them and are partnering with local officials to build a protective enclosure and workstation. In the meantime, Sakkae walks to Engare Sero from his village every day at sunrise, keeping a watchful eye on the footprints he found. —Michael Greshko

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