From spiders to mammals, the living world never ceases to amaze us with new wonders. Some are inspiring new technologies.
- Frog’s tongue ‘can lift three times own body weight’ (Jonathan Webb in the BBC News). It’s not just muscle, but shape and coating that allows frogs to be tongue weightlifting champs. The researcher confessed to having fun to finding out new things about frogs.
- Spiders build sonically-tuned webs (Thomas Sumner in Science Magazine). They’re not just food-catchers; they’re musical instruments. Spiders have been found harping on their webs, tuning them up, and listening in to the music of the death dance of captured insects. “The team proposes that spiders tune the tension in their webs like a guitar string by plucking the silk strands and listening to the resulting echoes, creating clearer vibrational signals from captured prey.” The findings could “inspire new lightweight sensors.”
- Fish-eating spiders ‘widespread’ (BBC News). They’re on almost every continent, and scientists didn’t even know. “Scientists have discovered that a number of spider species catch and eat fish,” even fish much larger than themselves. To go fishing, they anchor their hind legs on the land and scout the surface of the water. Upon catching one with their fangs, they haul it in, carry it off, and reduce the fish to liquid with their toxins. Afterwards, they slurp in the fish cocktail.
- How cormorants emerge dry after deep dives (MIT press release). “A combination of modeling and laboratory tests has now determined how both chemistry — the preening oil that birds use — and the microstructure of feathers, with their barbs and barbules, allow birds to stay dry even after emerging from amazingly deep dives.” The find was inspiring: “This might lead to the design of artificial surfaces that do the same thing.” It was reported a decade ago, too (5/24/04), that cormorants’ eyes rapidly refocus during the dive to allow accurate vision in both air and water.
- The noisy world of mud crabs (Northeastern University). Researchers at Northeastern found out that crabs can hear the sounds their predators make, and alter their behavior accordingly. This was not known about marine crabs before. “They didn’t hear the same way we do—through the imposition of sound waves on our auditory machinery—but rather through billions of displaced particles knocking against the tiny hairs inside their statocysts.”
- African swallowtail butterfly: Scientists unravel the genetic secrets of nature’s master of mimicry (University of Exeter). Researchers have discovered a “genetic switch that allows female swallowtails to look like different Monarch butterflies and thus avoid being eaten.” The biologists were surprised. “By pinpointing the switch, we have revealed a unique mechanism,” the press release says. “It is really exciting to show that all this diversity is determined by variation in just a single gene.”
- When the bat sings (Virginia Morell in Science Magazine). A whole new dimension has been revealed about bats: they can sing! Like birds, they can serenade females and issue warning calls. The article includes a number of sound files so readers can hear the warbles, chirps and birdlike chatter that would be hard to distinguish from birdsong were it not mostly ultrasonic. A researcher noted that “each male’s song is unique—rather like a jazz player riffing on a tune.”
Finally, a whole new “tropical Eden” in southeast Suriname is just now being explored by scientists. It’s one of the last untouched tropical reserves in South America. Readers can ride along in a boat watching the embedded video clip on PhysOrg, wondering at all the new plants and animals awaiting classification. It took a lot of planning and work to get there:
The team surveyed four sites in the upper Palumeu River watershed, going from low floodplains to isolated mountain peaks. They received invaluable support from 30 indigenous men from nearby communities, who went ahead in boats through dangerous rapids to help bring 2,000 kilos of food and equipment, set up camp sites, cook meals and guide the team through the forests. From Paramaribo, the scientists chartered a plane to a village in Southeast Suriname and from there reached their first camp site by helicopter.
The scientists collected data on water quality and an astonishing total of 1,378 species, including plants, ants, beetles, katydids, fishes, amphibians, birds and mammals.
Water quality was good, and there was very little evidence of human contamination, except what must have blown in from regions outside the reserve.
At CEH, we rejoice over scientific discoveries, and encourage exploration of creation’s wonders. It’s the Darwinian storytelling we can do without. Thankfully, there was very little in these articles.