June 20, 2002 | David F. Coppedge

Amazing Animals on Parade

You have to admire animals.  They have tricks humans still need to learn, and possess technologies that engineers are striving to imitate.

  1. Spiders:  Don’t let the black widow scare you; it’s only a picture on Science Daily.  Scientists are amazed at how these animals produce one of the best dragline silks in spiderdom.  It is the strongest and toughest spider silk found so far.  It can absorb enormous amounts of energy.  They are just now teasing out the genes that produce the proteins that produce this ideal material.  If we can learn to copy the secret formula, you may find it on your skin some day.  It could lead to “lightweight super-strong body armor, components of medical devices and high-tech athletic attire.”  That sounds both creepy and cool.
  2. Geckos:  Speaking of spiders, spiderman outfits may soon become a reality.  A team has succeeded in manufacturing “gecko tape” better than the gecko foot itself (for the physics of gecko foot adhesion, see 12/06/2006 and 08/27/2002).  Reporting in PNAS,1 a team at University of Ohio claims their nanotube-based gecko tape is four times stronger than natural gecko feet (cf. 11/06/2006).  It can adhere to almost any surface and just peel off for immediate reuse.  The researchers envision applications in microelectronics, robotics and space applications – to which the imaginative reader can envision products for the shelves of Toys R Us.  They didn’t mention if their tape is self-cleaning like a real gecko foot (01/04/2005).  Now, if they can get the dispenser to eat flies and reproduce itself, they’ll really be onto something.
  3. Starfish, Insects, :  We mammals pride ourselves on our advanced systems, but the so-called lower forms of life are not so low.  A press release from the European Science Foundation remarked that the immune systems of invertebrates are “anything but simple.”  The article gushes about how many surprising advanced technologies they have to resist disease.  Their immune systems are even fine-tuned enough to prevent autoimmune reactions.
  4. Honeybees:  Scientists used to think that the queen bee controlled the hive, like an autocrat, but new findings at University of North Carolina challenge that view and make the situation more complicated.  Somehow, the experienced worker bees arrive at a consensus and signal one another when it is time to move the hive, says a report on Science Daily.  The queen, in fact, is a passive recipient of signals.  The workers tell her when to lay eggs, when to stop, and when to fly.
        Bees are the most-studied insects of all, but these findings are contrary to the received wisdom about beehive social behavior.  How does the hive organize itself and make these important decisions without central leadership?  Scientists are not sure, but know it involves additional signals apart from the familiar waggle dance they use to point to food sources.  These signals include piping (vibrating their wings rapidly in contact) and vibration signals (a kind of grab-and-shake move).  However it works, it produces group cooperation with “remarkable efficiency.”  Maybe we should try these moves in the next business meeting.  If someone isn’t cooperating, grab and shake.
  5. Electric fish:  Loving couples who feel one another’s electricity should get a charge out of this.  Some electric fish in African waters court one another with “electric duets,” reported a press release from Cornell University.  The males “sing” to their mates with specialized electric pulses.  It must be lovely in a fishy way; even, shall we say, stunning?

1Ge, Sethi, Ci, Ajayan, Dhinojwala, “Carbon nanotube-based synthetic gecko tapes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0703505104, published online before print June 19, 2007.

Mention of evolution is usually rare in such stories.  When brought up, it’s usually in the form of bald assertions of dogmatism (b.a.d.), like, “scientists showed that invertebrates have evolved elaborate ways to fight disease.”  Such statements neither motivated the research nor explained it after the observations.  Just brush off such fluff and get to the amazing facts.

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