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Now We Know How Birds Fly

Elementary physical science students know how airplane wings generate lift, but bird flight poses special challenges.  The aptly-named swifts, for instance, can practically turn on a dime, dive steeply, and halt in mid-air to catch insects in ways that make a stunt pilot stall.  It’s not just flapping, and it’s not just leading-edge feather shape, […]

Crows and Apes Related by Convergent Evolution

Scientists have noticed that crows have some of the same tool-making skills as apes, and in fact, are even better tool makers.  How could such vastly different animals show such similar mental skills?  Science1 explains this as another example of convergent evolution: Discussions of the evolution of intelligence have focused on monkeys and apes because […]

Preventing Bird Divorce: Mates Take Different Flights, Arrive Together

A shorebird named the black-tailed godwit presents a puzzle to biologists: “arrival synchrony” (leave it to scientists to give big names to simple concepts).  The males and females of this bird mate for life, but like some humans, live apart for months at a time.  This presents two puzzles: how do they stay apart without […]

Little Tyrannosaur with “Proto-Feathers” Found

National Geographic News wasted no time; a day before a report of another Chinese dinosaur with feathery-like structures was published in Nature,1 they already had color artwork on their news page, trumpeting the title, “T. Rex Cousin Had Feathers.”  Yet Nature itself seemed ho-hum about the announcement.  It was neither the cover story, nor mentioned […]

Your Eyes Have Automatic Light Meters

Every pupil knows that pupils constrict in bright light and dilate in dim light, but how?  Physiologists had assumed the retina signalled the iris muscles, but now it appears there is an independent mechanism in the iris itself, at least in birds, and probably in mammals, too.  A report in EurekAlert summarizes a finding from […]

Submarine Engineers Admire Penguins

An ocean engineer from MIT, Franz Hover, says “we never miss marveling at them,” speaking of penguins.  In the cover story of Science News,1 the submarine designer elaborates: Under the power and guidance of its versatile flippers, a penguin can move through the water faster than 10 miles per hour, turn almost instantaneously, and leap […]

Cooing Doves Set Muscle Speed Record

The dove: a symbol of peace, innocence, love, and gentleness, right?  Its cooing call is a soothing song to nature lovers.  Yet hidden in the throat of the dove is one of the fastest-acting muscles in the animal kingdom, report Elemans et al. in the Sept. 9 issue of Nature.1  The cooing song contains a […]

Darwin’s Finches: Researchers Tweak the Beak

Every once in awhile, a new angle on Darwin’s finches (an icon of evolution) appears in print.  Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have devoted their life to studying everything possible about these related species of birds that inhabit the Galápagos Islands – only to find that evolutionary changes are reversible (see 04/26/2002 headline) – have […]

Humans Lose Some, Win Some in Animal Olympics

Imagine humans competing in Olympic events with animals.  Astrobiology Magazine predicts we would lose many events, but excel in others: “In most cases of physical competition, the animals beat us at our own games,” says the website’s staff writer, Dr. David Noever. 100 Meter Sprint:  Cheetah wins the gold at 3 seconds.  Silver goes to […]

So Is Archaeopteryx a Transitional Form, Or Not?

An international team set out to determine if the skull features of Archaeopteryx, the famous fossil bird, indicated whether it was capable of flight.  The answer reported in Nature1 was affirmative: Here we show the reconstruction of the braincase from which we derived endocasts of the brain and inner ear.  These suggest that Archaeopteryx closely […]

Sparrows Do the Long Haul Without Sleep

During their 2600-mile migrations from Southern California to Alaska, white-crowned sparrows fly day and night without sleep for days on end.  Apparently they don’t have to fly on automatic pilot.  Science Now tells about a University of Wisconsin psychiatrist who watched captive sparrows during their migratory period.  The birds seemed alert and in no way […]

Cormorant Eyes Rapidly Refocus in Dives Into Murky Water

You’re hang gliding over a lake, and you spot a fish below.  From your hovering position, you drop into a rapid, steep dive headfirst into the water.  Whoops; your eyes just went out of focus, and you lost your fish in the murky depths.  Too bad you’re not a cormorant.     Cormorants (a kind […]

Fossil Hummingbird, Arthropod Look Modern

Science announced that a rare hummingbird fossil has been found in Germany and, though assumed to be 30 million years old, is indistinguishable from living New-World hummingbirds.  This upsets the standard theory that hummingbirds evolved in the New World only.  Writing in the May 7 issue,1 discoverer Gerald Mayr said, I report on tiny skeletons […]

How Birds Calibrate Their Navigating Maps

Three researchers tracked birds in the wild and concluded that “night-flying thrushes set their course using a magnetic compass, which they calibrate to the setting sun before takeoff each evening.”  The team of three captured thrushes in Illinois and attached small radio transmitters to them, then followed their flight for up to 1100 kilometers.  By […]

Animals Are “Overengineered” for Navigation

Animals outshine us in many ways, but one capability that should humble us is animal navigation.  From spiders to mice, from birds to bees, the ability of animals to find their way around is truly astonishing, and James L. Gould of Princeton has raised our awareness of just how astonishing in a short article in […]
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