November 28, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Little Animals, Big Technologies

You can’t always say bigger is better.  In the animal world, some of the smallest critters have capabilities that belie their size and compare well with their less dimensionally-challenged brethren. 

  1. Bee secure:  Honeybees are being trained to sniff bombs.  Really.  Read all about it in a press release from Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Bees were selected because they smell good.  They have olfactory senses that rival those of dogs.  Being so small, and able to fly, they could make a big dent in the war on terror: “Based on knowledge of bee biology, the new techniques could become a leading tool in the fight against the use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which present a critical vulnerability for American military troops abroad and is an emerging danger for civilians worldwide.”  Now, if they can just get them to sting the bombers, too….
        For a whiff of what goes into a bee’s smelling sense, reread the 06/27/2006 entry on insect olfaction.  A good sense of smell seems to span the size spectrum; remember on 11/16/2006 when we learned that T. rex smelled good?  Lest you feel left out, we said on 08/31/2005 that you, too, smell like a dog.
  2. Synchronized swimming:  The cover of Science News (11/25/2006, 170:22, p. 347) is about swarming behavior.  Erica Klarreich writes, “Few people can fail to marvel at a flock of birds swooping through the evening sky, homing in with certainty on its chosen resting place.  The natural world abounds with other spectacular examples of animals moving in concert: a school of fish making a hairpin turn, an ant colony building giant highways, or locusts marching across the plains.”  We’ve all seen the anchovies moving gracefully together like a single animal, each member adjusting its motion almost instantaneously to its neighbors more gracefully and rapidly than any marching band.  How do animals do this without a drum major?  That’s the question, and the search for answers is just now becoming amenable to detailed computer modeling.
        Since swarming behavior is common among so many disparate groups, scientists suspect some simple mathematical rules underlie the phenomenon.  “Coordinated groups can range in scale from just a few individuals to billions, and they can consist of an intelligent species or one whose members have barely enough brainpower to recognize each other.”  If we learn how they do it, maybe it could help us on the morning commute.  Imagine if we could all drive without collisions on open land, without lanes or signals.  Klarreich quotes the Biblical naturalist Agur, who noted, “The locusts have no King, yet all of them march in rank” (Proverbs 30;27). 
  3. An ugly face is like a melody:  Most people would rank some bat faces as among the most hideous in the animal kingdom, appropriate only for Halloween.  Actually, bats are mostly friendly helpers who clear the air of flies and mosquitos for us.  There’s a reason for those wrinkles and protrusions, though; Charles Q. Choi writes in Live Science that scientists have discovered the facial shape modulates and focuses their sonar beams.  Different frequencies follow different paths, giving some bats wide-angle and narrow “views” of the sound field.  This is important for an animal that has to both dodge obstacles and catch food on the wing – all in the dark.
  4. Pepper spray:  Certain wasps can emit a kind of “pepper spray” defense in a fight, National Geographic News reported.  This is giving some scientists ideas about using them for natural pest controls.  Wouldn’t that make Rachel Carson happy.

Most of these little animals continue to bewilder the biggest jackasses of all – Homo sapiens.  At least, with a little hard scientific work, the lilliputians are willing to share their technological secrets with us.

All of this fascinating scientific research could be done perfectly well without evolutionary theory, using the assumptions of intelligent design.  By observing animals and plants and seeking to understand how they work, we could well learn many useful and helpful things to improve our lives – no thanks to Darwin.

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