April 26, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Animal Tricks Inspire

Here we are in the millennium of science, and we are still trying to figure out how animals do such nifty things.  Some of their nifty tricks we didn’t even know about till researchers took a look.  With high-tech monitoring tools, we might even learn the tricks for our own good.

  1. Owl fowl:  The flapping flight of owls is being studied carefully by German scientists for clues to better aerospace engineering.  Live Science has a picture of their sophisticated monitoring apparatus.  Owls are good for studying flapping flight because they start out sl-OWL-ly.
        The researchers coax their pet barn owls, Happy and Tesla, with food to get them to fly through the apparatus where eight cameras follow their every move.  “In addition to revealing more about bird flight,” the article said, “the information could be applied to small, unmanned aerial vehicles.
        Live Science accompanied the article with a gallery of nine photos of various owl species, including the “Harry Potter owl” (snow owl) with a wing span of 5 feet.
  2. Ant rafts:  Fire ants will drown alone, but in groups, they have an ingenious method to survive floods: join hands and make a living raft.  The abstract of a paper in PNAS dubbed the phenomenon a “self-assembled hydrophobic surface.”  The authors, Mlot, Tovey and Hu [Georgia Tech], explained, “We find that ants can considerably enhance their water repellency by linking their bodies together, a process analogous to the weaving of a waterproof fabric.
        An eye-catching video at Inside Science shows the ants flowing like a living fluid when encountering various novel situations.  To hold onto one another, they have to exert forces 400 times their own weight.  The ant balls are like a “super-organism” that can float for weeks in water.  How do they resist drowning?

    “The ants are so tightly knit together, that air pockets form between the water and the ants, and water cannot penetrate through any part,” said Nathan Mlot, a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and one of the study’s authors.
        The bottom layer of ants rests on top of the water’s surface, and others pile on above them.  Even when they do get submerged, the pockets of air bring them back to the surface quickly – and allow them to breathe.  When they get submerged, the ants flex their muscles in unison to form a tighter weave.

    Speaking of ants, a paper in PLoS One is entitled, “Ants in a Labyrinth: A Statistical Mechanics Approach to the Division of Labour.”  That paper begins,

    Both human and animal societies display a division of labour, in which there may be an unequal distribution of effort between or within particular tasks, according to age or experience, sex, physiology or morphology.  Such specialisation has long been known to improve collective productivity because learning allows individuals that focus on a subset of tasks to perform more efficiently than generalists (note however the exception to the rule provided by Dornhaus, 2008).  Division of labour is most advanced in the societies of insects such as ants, bees, wasps and termites.

    The division of labor promotes homeostasis (dynamic stability) in colonies of ants and other social insects.  The paper did not discuss evolution or the origin of this collective efficiency.
        Although the authors referred to division of labor in human societies, they did not address differences between the phenomenon in insects and humans.  “Division of labour characterises all levels of biological organisation as well as human and artificial social systems,” the paper ended.  “Our spatial fixed-threshold model links this organisational principle with the statistical mechanics approach to complex systems and provides testable hypotheses for future experiments.”

  3. Beetle bling:  In a projection theme reminiscent of the old motivational sermon “Acres of Diamonds” (Russell Conwell), a press release from the Optical Society of America begins:

    Costa Rica was once regarded as the poorest of all the colonies of the Spanish Empire, sadly deficient in the silver and gold so coveted by conquistadors.  As it turns out, all of the glittering gold and silver those explorers could have ever wanted was there all along, in the country’s tropical rainforests—but in the form of two gloriously lustrous species of beetle.

    Accompanying the article are photos of dazzling silver and gold beetles – the shimmering metallic color covering their entire bodies, as if they had been dipped in liquid metal or been fashioned by a skilled jeweler.  The authors surmise that the iridescent color, which can be seen from any direction, allows the insects to blend in with the numerous water droplets in the rainforest.
        So why is an optical society suddenly taking interest in entomology?  “Today, the brilliant gold- (Chrysina aurigans) and silver-colored (Chrysina limbata) beetles have given optics researchers new insights into the way biology can recreate the appearance of some of nature’s most precious metals, which in turn may allow researchers to produce new materials based on the natural properties found in the beetles’ coloring.”  The article then described how the light is produced not by pigment but by light refraction through a complex series of protein tissue interfaces.
        A result of this study might be the production of not real gold, not fool’s gold, but what might be called ID gold: “This potentially could lead to new products or consumer electronics that can perfectly mimic the appearance of precious metals,” the article said.  “Other products could be developed for architectural applications that require coatings with a metallic appearance.”  Wouldn’t Coronado be stunned by the sight of a future city of ID gold, only to learn that it was inspired by the beetles he would have unwittingly stepped on.

  4. Cute lil fish:  Many households only know of cuttlefish through the cuttlebone they put in the parakeet cage.  Actually, cuttlefish (not fish, but cephalopods) are some of the most amazing light-show magicians in the animal world – able to change their appearance from “camo to tuxedo in less than a second” (Science Daily).  “A new study led by Sarah Zylinski of Duke University shows just how good these animals (relatives of octopus and squid) are at this quick change routine.”  (See also 06/06/2007.)
        Dazzling video of cuttlefish changing color in wave-like patterns on their bodies is featured in the third volume of the film series Incredible Creatures that Defy Evolution from Exploration Films.  More footage of cuttlefish doing instant camouflage can be seen in the film God of Wonders from Eternal Productions (GodofWondersVideo.org, available at Go2RPI.com).  The latter shows a male camouflaged on one side, but simultaneously displaying bright color on the other side to attract a female, then switching the colors rapidly when she swims on his other side.
  5. Caterpillar robots:  What child has not been tickled by the movements of a caterpillar on his or her arm?  Scientists have another goal in mind: according to Science Daily, they want to build robots that use the same locomotion method.  Robots don’t have to be tin-man contraptions; they can be soft and silky.  “Caterpillars Inspire New Movements in Soft Robots” is the headline.  “Despite their extreme flexibility and adaptability, current soft-bodied robots are often limited by their slow speed, leading the researchers to turn to terrestrial soft-bodied animals for inspiration.”
        We all know how they crawl, but did you know caterpillars invented the wheel?  “Some caterpillars have the extraordinary ability to rapidly curl themselves into a wheel and propel themselves away from predators,” the article said.  “This highly dynamic process, called ballistic rolling, is one of the fastest wheeling behaviours in nature.”  (That statement would have to exclude cellular motors, like the flagellum or ATP synthase, which are rated at tens of thousands of RPM.)  Within a split second, the caterpillar turns itself into a wheel and rolls rapidly out of harm’s way.
        GoQBot is the latest test model at Tufts University of a robot that imitates ballistic rolling.  It can reshape its linear self into a letter Q in 100 ms and then roll at over a half meter per second.  “Not only did the study provide an insight into the fascinating escape system of a caterpillar, it also put forward a new locomotor strategy which could be used in future robot development.”
        Robots of the crawling kind are being inspired not only by caterpillars, but by snakes and worms, the article said.
  6. Rock eyes:  A dispatch article describing chiton eyes made of rock (see 04/23/2011) is open-source on Current Biology for those wishing to read more about how they work.  “The eyes on the backs of molluscs known as chitons are shadow and motion detectors, the lenses of which are made of birefringent aragonite,” author Michael Land wrote.  “These provide a focus both in and out of water.”  As for how these evolved, he appeared to have more questions than answers.

Most of us are repulsed by cockroaches, but before you stomp on them, spray them or loathe them, take a moment to understand what makes them so successful.  New Scientist posted a description of the cockroach family, noting that only a couple of the 5,000 known species have adapted to living in human dwellings.  New Scientist accompanied the description with a gallery of nine photos of the critters, noting that they are among the fastest-moving insects on earth.  “Their scuttling movements are so distinctive that they have inspired modern six-legged robotic systems.”  Maybe someday a cockroach-inspired robot will invade your kitchen to help with the housework.

The “acres of diamonds” – opportunities for wealth creation and inspiration – truly are all around us in the living world.  Help young people see the potential for design-inspired science to provide exciting careers and improve our lives.  No Darwin Party membership required.  It might even be an encumbrance, like an albatross around the neck.  Study the albatross by design and make a better glider instead.

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