How They Do It: Amazing Organisms
The plants and animals around us seem so ordinary, but they all are so extraordinary, the extraordinary becomes ordinary simply because of their numbers. But if you expanded the sample space to include the entire solar system, what we have in earth’s biosphere should astonish everyone. Here are some notable fellow creatures.
Monarch butterflies: You can raise Monarchs in your garden. Loretta Downs does it, and told her experience on PhysOrg. The article speaks of “the miracle of the monarch,” its “unlikely story,” its “stained-glass wings of orange and black with drips of white,” and “the most uncanny butterfly with so much wisdom tucked deep inside its jade-green chrysalis, the transformation chamber that dangles from a leaf, where striped caterpillar unfolds into winged beauty, catching drifts of wind.”
Poetic excess? Not for her. “It’s a mystery, and we don’t get so close to these kinds of mysteries,” says Downs. “To watch this unfolding, it’s a miracle. There is no better symbol for transformation, for the mystery of death” that metamorphoses into “something altogether new” – a rebirth. She finds it a healing, comforting experience to watch her butterflies.
Monarchs are featured in the new Illustra Media documentary Metamorphosis, to be released on DVD June 15 and on Blu-Ray on July 6.
Flowering plants: PhysOrg “What makes leaves sprout in the spring?” In Canada a few weeks ago, trees were barren, but now they are bursting with buds. There’s a transformation you won’t find on Mars or Venus.
The question was answered by Malcolm Campbell of University of Toronto – at least to the extent science understands this “complex program” the article claims was “designed by the trees over tens of thousands of years,” years Campbell obviously never experienced. He described how day length, temperature and water availability are factors. Trees key on a cold snap in autumn being long enough to trigger the program, followed by a sufficient number of warm days in the spring. Then global warming entered the discussion, but despite the triggers mentioned by Campbell, the question remains: what makes leaves sprout in the spring?
Wired seeds: Cute seedlings in the process of sprouting decorate an article on Science Daily promising, “Genetic ‘Wiring’ of Seeds Revealed.” Work at the University of Nottingham has discovered that “the same mechanism that controls germination is responsible for another important decision in the life cycle of plants — when to start flowering.”
Once again, environmental cues like temperature, light, moisture and nutrients trigger a complex program to unfold. The researchers found a gene network, which they dubbed SeedNet, that’s involved in both seed germination and plant flowering. The internal and external factors ensure that “the decision for a seed to germinate is made at the perfect moment to ensure survival,” the article said.
How could such a wonder arise? The article attributed it to purposeless causes, rooted in chance, that act like a goddess: “evolution has genetically ‘wired’ seeds in a very complex way to avoid making potentially deadly mistakes,” the article claimed (see 04/23/2011). Similarly, evolution took credit for the double duty of the genetic network: “Given that seeds were evolved long after plants developed their ability to withstand environmental stress, this indicated that plants have adapted existing genes to fulfil a different role.” Modular design is usually thought of as good planning and foresight.
Cicadas: Those noisy cricket-like bugs called cicadas will be emerging from their underground hideouts in the American south this summer. Some will live underground for 13 years before celebrating their brief above-ground mating rituals; others 17 years. Why are these intervals prime numbers?
Live Science explained: “It is no mere coincidence that cicadas have evolved indivisible life cycles,” Natalie Wolchover wrote. “As explained by the entomologist Stephen Jay Gould, prime cycles have a major evolutionary advantage over cycles that are multiples of smaller numbers of years, and for a simple reason: They make cicadas more elusive.” If they came up in 18 years, for instance, predators with life cycles of two, three or six years could get lucky every third or ninth, sixth, or third generation. There are fewer coincidences with prime numbers because they are not divisible by any other integer.
As plausible as this sounds, it avoids the question of what the ninth, sixth, and third generations of predators would eat in between the lucky coincidences. It also says nothing about how the pupae survive these many years underground, and even more amazing, how they all wake up on cue for a few weeks of frenzied mating, only to bury themselves as eggs once again for another Brigadoon sleep underground.
Dinosaur necking: Matt Walker had an unusual blog entry for his feature “Nature Wonder Monkey” on the BBC News. He was going to explain the tremendously long necks of sauropods (and of giraffes, for that matter).
Enter the theory of sexual selection. While it seemed Walker might present a triumphal account of how sexual selection produced these long necks, the ending was rather different. He debunked the idea. He quoted evolutionists who have discredited the idea that sexual selection produced long necks and other flashy traits like peacock tails. In particular, Mike Taylor [U of Bristol] tested sexual selection on 39 giraffes and found no correlation between neck length and sexual success.
While Matt Walker left room for sexual selection in crabs and birds, he accepted Taylor’s extended conclusion, “There is no example, anywhere, of a type of four-legged animal, of which there are many species, that has evolved a single trait to be sexy.” For sauropods, too, “A sexy neck just didn’t get the reptilian juices flowing,” he quipped. That leaves any evolutionary explanation for the “even more remarkable species such as Argentinosaurus, which holds the record for being both the heaviest land animal ever, and the longest,” dangling with no support.
Decorative spiders: Did you know that some orb-weaving spiders decorate their webs? The BBC News explored this phenomenon for answers, but admitted that “exactly why the spiders adorn their webs is unclear.” Leading contender for this “tricky area” is that the spider adds highly-visible webbing in the center where it resides to make the web more visible to animals that might accidentally damage them.
A researcher in Australia said, “The debate about [its] function has lasted for over 100 years and is still highly controversial.” Another theory is that the decorations attract prey with the decorations. What reporter Victoria Gill left out was any explanation for how a lowly spider could calculate costs, strategize, be motivated, or “tactically use the decorations” by an evolutionary process. Those are the verbs of teleonomy.
Smallest flying insect: The smallest flying insect is a parasitic wasp. PhysOrg has a photo of one of these little guys with a 1mm wingspan walking up a tiny egg of a cabbage white butterfly. Using a 22,000-frame-per-second Phantom camera, the Flight Artists team from Wageningen University in the Netherlands recorded their acrobatics: “The high speed movies show how the parasitic wasp jumps up into the air, elegantly flaps around, and then somehow lands – the insect sometimes boldly lands face-first” but can also land on its feet and head butt other wasps.
Time for some stats: wings beat at 350 strokes per second. Weighs one 40,000th of a gram. Hitchhikes rides on other insects, such as butterflies. What this means is that the hardware and software for controlled flight, navigation and reproduction is all packaged into a very tiny animal.
The article includes a short video of the wasps in slow motion. On a small white butterfly, the wasp shows up as a speck on the butterfly’s face bristles under its compound eye. The Flight Artists team next wants to take its “extraordinary camera” to investigate how birds, bats, bees and even seeds fly, to “make the invisible visible” and “to shoot images of fliers in Nature that fascinate them.” See their website at FlightArtists.com.
Manta ray: A contest was held last month at the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center in West Bethesda, Maryland. It was between two robot-building teams trying to imitate the elegant swimming of the manta ray. “Swimming like butterflies underwater, with mesmerizing ease and grace, manta rays are the envy of engineers seeking more efficient underwater vehicles,” Elisabeth Pennisi wrote for Science this week.1 In an article under the category “Bio-Inspired Engineering,” she detailed how teams from Princeton and University of Virginia both failed, ending in a draw.
One of the contestants has long been enraptured with these gentle giants that can grow up to five meters wide. “They are such self-possessed, graceful animals,” Alexander Smits said. “It was almost mystical,” he added, thinking about his swim with these creatures years ago in Australia. “I decided I’ve got to know something about them.” No wonder; here’s what Pennisi wrote about their specifications:
Mantas are everything one could want in an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). “I’ve thought for a long time that the people who are interested in robotic mimicry were missing the boat in not looking at manta rays,” says Adam Summers, a comparative biomechanist at Friday Harbor Laboratories in Washington state. Most fish swing their body from side to side, and “that’s not very handy if you are trying to stuff [instruments] inside.” The manta body is stiff. Mantas are also quiet, efficient swimmers—AUVs tend to be one or the other. The best AUVs have a turning radius of 0.7 body lengths; the manta needs just 0.27 its body length and maneuvers like a fighter plane. Based on the two robots’ performance, “in terms of maneuverability, we’re on the right track” in understanding how mantas achieve such grace, says Frank Fish, a functional morphologist at West Chester University in Pennsylvania who is working with UVa and Princeton on the manta project.
Snipe hunt: Want to know the world speed-distance record for migratory birds? According to PhysOrg, it’s the great snipe, an endangered species. Arctic terns fly farther at slower speeds, and peregrine falcons fly faster for shorter distances, but this winner excels at both speed and distance. “Swedish scientists found that the birds fly non-stop over a distance of around 4,200 miles at a phenomenal 60 mph.” Some took off in Sweden and landed in central Africa, 4,225 miles away, in just 3.5 days.
This was a surprise. “We never expected record-breaking flights for this ordinary bird,” they said. They had no idea where this species went after leaving Scandinavia, either. Tracking devices on some of the birds revealed their secret. The article ended with a list of other speed records in the animal kingdom.
Trivia provided by article: “The word ‘sniper’ originated in the 1770s among soldiers in British India: if a hunter was skilled enough to kill an elusive snipe, he was called a sniper.”
After the snipe article, someone left a comment, noting “the total absense [sic] of any evolutionary talk in this article.” He said, “I guess the researchers know that there’s really no evolutionary explanation for this phenomenal ability and so they keep their minds focused on what works in reality. No side-tracking into nonsense speculation of evolutionary origins here.” An evolutionist immediately retorted with an example of bad design – i.e., why God would not have made the world the way it is. He apparently didn’t notice or care that he made a religious, not scientific, argument (see Darwin’s God blog).
1. Elizabeth Pennisi, “Bio-Inspired Engineering: Manta Machines,” Science, 27 May 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6033 pp. 1028-1029, DOI: 10.1126/science.332.6033.1028.
Did you notice how many times the Darwinian arguments were vacuous stories, leaving the real questions begging? This kind of storytelling masquerading as explanation will, unfortunately, be with us until the Darwinian edifice implodes, a long-overdue event.
You can help hasten its eventuality by drawing attention to the design specifications scientists find in nature, to the observation that biomimetics (one of the hottest trends in science) assumes good design, and that dysteleological arguments are appeals to religion.
Science will get along just fine without the tacked-on personifications and just-so stories that are the besetting sins of the Darwin Party. The rest of us can simply delight in the never-ending wonders of living things. Let’s help put the fascination back in biology with intelligent design.