Look at what scientists are learning about some common animals, and others not so common.
Bee football. Don’t think of them as bumbling idiots. Bumblebees can learn football by watching, and then improve on it, says Science Magazine. Watch the video on Live Science: call it golf, soccer or whatever, but it’s pretty cool. The bees figure out how to get a treat by rolling a ball into a hole. Their companions can then learn how to do it for themselves, even with balls of different colors. “These findings suggest with convincing evidence that a miniature brain is not necessarily simple, but can solve an impressively complex task,” the lead author said.
The color of naked zebras. If you shaved a zebra, would it still have stripes? No, says National Geographic; the skin under that striped fur coat is a uniform black. Surprisingly, so are polar bears; their fur looks white because the hairs are transparent, refracting light. Giraffes have a uniform tan color under their spots. The big cats like lions and leopards, though, do continue to show patterns on their skin when veterinarians need to shave off fur for whatever reason, such as to draw blood samples. This is probably because the pigmentation continues into the hair follicles on those mammals. You can learn about more animal patterns in Liz Langley’s revealing article.
How the fish got its spots. Speaking of animal patterns, some Russian scientists believe they have figured out how spots grow on a certain kind of catfish – at least, they have developed a model. The model describes how certain morphogen proteins move during development. It doesn’t however, explain where the proteins came from, or what designed the finished pattern. “The approach creates the preconditions for the development of mathematical models for increasingly diverse morphological forms in embryogenesis,” Phys.org says, making it clear that the work only starts to begin to commence on an explanation. “The researchers are already currently working on its further experimental confirmation.” No mention of evolution in this piece.
Catfish world record. A giant Amazon catfish may not only top the heavyweight scales, but sets a distance record, too. This six-foot dorado catfish reported by Live Science can travel over 7,200 miles in Amazonian waterways, the longest migration of any freshwater fish known, including salmon. “The amazing thing, looking at it in terms of evolution, is that these fish evolved with the entire system,” a researcher said. So does natural selection operate on rivers, too?
Brown recluse inspiration. A feared poisonous spider has a redeeming virtue: a web that is inspiring new materials. “Brown recluse spiders use a unique micro looping technique to make their threads stronger than that of any other spider,” Phys.org says. Engineers are even thinking of using a similar design to capture space debris. Incidentally, Medical Xpress cautions that some skin conditions are misdiagnosed as bites from brown recluse spiders.
Flies on manure. Yuck! How can flies stand it? They buzz around manure as if in a candy store. Phys.org says that, remarkably, “housefly’s love of manure could lead to sustainable feed.” How is that possible? Well, for one thing, the larvae of flies help biodegrade the manure. In the process, those protein-rich larvae could replace fishmeal from aquaculture as the feed of choice for livestock. “I think feed from insects is the future of animal farming,” one Cornell researcher said.
Hagfish slime. Those two words sound creepy alone, let alone together. But scientists are interested in the hagfish’s ability to spew out a sticky slime that “unfolds, assembles and expands into the surrounding water in response to a threat,” Phys.org explains. The slime, created by special cells, has unique properties that change over time. That’s giving ideas to inventors.
“We now know that this material, 10,000 times softer than Gelatin, isn’t just an ultra-soft elastic solid as earlier believed,” Chaudhary said. “Rather, it has very interesting time-dependent properties. Its concentration-dependent properties are very different compared with many other biopolymer or synthetic systems. Such properties make slime distinctly ideal for assembling under uncontrolled conditions.“
Slime has a myriad of potential applications. For example, it could plug or slow leaks from oil drilling equipment, or provide cell cultures with a sparse network of fibrous elements that may offer unique tissue scaffolds architectures and even support 3-D cell cultures.
Flashlight fish. There’s actually a fish with eyes that light up. PLoS One tells about Anomalops katoptron, the “Flashlight Fish” that uses bioluminescent light to detect prey in the dark. And get this: they blink their lights nine times a minute, but increase the rate to 90 times a minute or more when honing in on their food. They hide out in reef caves and crevices during the day, then come out at night to hunt with lights a-blazing. The actual light is produced by symbiotic bacteria that live in their eye sockets.
Zebrafish eyes. Those who think eyes were easy to evolve should read an article in Phys.org about eye development in simple zebrafish. Studying how eyes grow in fish embryos can help us understand our own eyes. “There are many different structures in our eyes that work in conjunction to allow us to see,” Sarah Wong writes. “These structures are strikingly similar between different species, from zebrafish to humans. The growth of ocular tissues must be tightly controlled in order to maintain the correct eye size and shape that allow us to see.” Cells proliferate in distinct regions, for instance, and migrate into position. Even smaller, specific proteins interact in complex ways, creating physical forces that push and pull structures as needed; other proteins “glue” parts together to form tissues such as the lens and retina. All these parts, carrying out their roles independently, have a common goal: helping the animal to “see the world with fresh eyes.”
Primate eyes. The high-resolution spot at the center of our vision, called the fovea, is unique to humans and other primates, Science Daily says. What shapes the fovea’s unusual perceptual qualities? It’s not just that the rods and cones are packed more tightly at that spot; there are also specializations in the ganglion cells and image processing of the underlying neurons. “The latest study provides one of the first glimpses into how the fovea works at a cellular and circuit level,” the article points out. “It turns out to be very different from how other regions of the retina operate.” The researchers appear interested in the structure and function of vision down to the cellular level; there was no mention of evolution.
Underwater dawn chorus. Farm hands know about chickens and birds squawking and singing up a storm at daybreak. It turns out that coral reef fish have a similar tradition. New Scientist tells about recordings of a fishy “dawn chorus” just like birds. You can hear a sample recording embedded in the article.
Echolocating mouse. The first known case of echolocation in a tree-dwelling mammal is reported by New Scientist. The Vietnamese pygmy dormouse seems to use ultrasonic calls to guide its motion. Could this be a transitional form for the well-known ability in bats? Mice and bats seem to have some looks in common, don’t they? The scientists seem interested in drawing that connection, but two facts fly in the face of it: (1) The earliest bats seem to have already had echolocation well developed, and (2) Bats are not related to rodents, “so the dormice would have gained their ability to echolocate independently rather than from an ancestor common to them and bats.”
Fallen log cities. Insects love it when forest trees fall in a windstorm. According to Phys.org, Swiss researchers found that “storm-ravaged woodland is approximately twice as rich in insect species as undamaged forest. This is because many endangered forest insects benefit from the open forest areas left behind by storms.” About a quarter of all forest-dwelling organisms depend on dead wood. It’s probably not a good idea, then, to remove fallen logs; they form an essential part of the forest ecology.
The monster in the rocks. What is the “Tully monster?” This bizarre marine animal, the state fossil of Illinois, has defied classification for decades. Science Daily says that recent claims it’s a kind of vertebrate fish have been overturned. That means the mystery of this weird animal is far from solved. Its eyes are on long stalks, and it has a long pincer-like organ in front. Now, researchers think it had no backbone, Live Science adds. About 1,200 fossil specimens have been recovered. They’re not arthropods; they’re not vertebrates; what are they? The monster mystery continues.
Mammoth meltdown. We end with a favorite extinct creature, the wooly mammoth. The population living on Wrangel Island apparently died out due to “mutational meltdown,” Science Daily says – i.e., too much inbreeding. This sad case of genetic entropy, as Dr. John Sanford has called it, “also offers a warning to conservationists: preserving a small group of isolated animals is not sufficient to stop negative effects of inbreeding and genomic meltdown.”
We hope you enjoyed this tour of amazing creatures that live, or have lived, on this privileged planet. Our Creator gave us plenty of scientific work to do to figure out how they live, and move, and have their being.