May 17, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Small Animals Astound, Inspire

Elephants and great whales impress us with their bulk, but there are smaller critters that are no less impressive.  Here are a few fantastic animals that come in very small packages.

  1. Bears in space:  Here’s an animal so bizarre, so well-armed, so scary looking, if you knew they were in your back yard you would run away screaming – unless you were told they are less than a millionth of a meter in size.  They’re called water bears, or tardigrades.  Take a look at the color electron micrograph of one on the BBC News and imagine your reaction coming across one of these if it were as large as an army tank.  The picture of a water bear egg further down the article looks like an alien spaceship, yet these creatures live in many environments around our world.
        The article said that the Italian Space Agency is studying what makes tardigrades world-class survivors.  They have the ability to shut down operations so completely, they can survive freezing and even the vacuum of outer space with its ionizing radiation.  Called the “hardiest animal on earth,” the water bear can enter a “cryptobiotic state” of dessication that can allow it to survive for months or years, showing “a high resistance to physical and chemical extremes” such as “very low and high temperatures, exposure to high pressure or vacuum, as well as contact with organic solvents and ionizing radiation.”
        The Italian Space Agency would like to apply their secrets to learn how to “protect other organisms, including humans, from the extreme stresses found under space conditions.”  Maybe a water bear spacesuit will become the latest fashion on some future spaceship.
  2. Flatworm regeneration:  Students who have looked at flatworms in biology class have been amused by their tiny triangular heads and cross-eyed look, but they can do something students can’t do: regenerate themselves.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that one of their teams has figured out that the tiny creatures do it with adult stem cells.  They are a long way, though, from figuring out exactly how regeneration works.
        Amazing as flatworm regeneration is, one of the researchers attributed it to a blind, unguided process: “This is an animal that, through evolution, has already solved the regeneration problem,” Dan Wagner, a grad student, said.  “We’re studying planarians to see how their regeneration process works.  And, one day, we’ll examine what are the key differences between what’s possible in this animal and what’s possible in a mouse or a person.”
  3. Honeybee flight simulator:  Researchers at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique are trying to see how honeybees get around in life.  They built a flight simulator consisting of a complex tunnel with lines and curves intended to challenge the bees’ navigational abilities, with a reward at the end.
        They have learned that bees, with their large peripheral vision, measure optical flow (the lateral movement of objects) to judge distance, and can speed up or slow down with the information.  Bees are able to see objects overhead as well as on both sides and forward.  “The researchers observed that a bee’s speed decreased in proportion to the narrowest point of passage in the flight chamber, whether the constriction was horizontal or vertical,” the article explained.  “In other words, a bee slows its flight speed as an obstacle gets closer.  Its speed depends on the size of the visual field and, therefore, on the closeness of the obstacle.”
        The press release began with an expression of astonishment: “How can a creature as tiny as a bee, whose brain is proportionally smaller than that of a bird, manage to control its flight and avoid obstacles both in flight and on the ground?  We now know that bee sensory-motor performance depends on a nervous system consisting of a hundred thousand to a million neurons.”  However bees do it, their tiny brains could help us design objects weighing tons: “These findings could have aerospace applications, such as during the crucial phases when aircraft fly in confined environments.”  Maybe the Millennium Falcon had honeybee software that allowed Han Solo to navigate successfully through that asteroid field.
  4. Colorblind hiding in plain color sight:  Cuttlefish have the remarkable ability to quickly blend in with their surroundings by turning a variety of colors.  But since they are color blind, how do they do it?  Scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, wanted to find out.  “Previous studies have shown that certain background variables—such as brightness, contrast, edge and size of objects, etc.—are essential for eliciting camouflaged body patterns,” a press release posted on PhysOrg said.  “However, cephalopod eyes lack color perception, thus the vexing question of how they achieve effective camouflage while being colorblind still remains.”
        The team tackled this “incredibly difficult problem” by using a new imaging technology, Hyper Spectral Imaging (HSI), that samples 540 windows of color.  This allowed them to hone in on the aspects of a cuttlefish profile that a predator would see.  The cuttlefish is able to dodge a predator’s sensitivity to brightness, or luminance, with color tricks: “What this means is that cuttlefish camouflage strategies take away a tool from predators in their ability to pick out their prey from the background and instead leave them with only brightness as a method for prey identification.”
        This is only a partial explanation, they realize, for a phenomenon that puzzled Aristotle.  It doesn’t explain the systems the cuttlefish uses, nor how it discerns its background so as to blend in.  “We hope our work takes us one step closer to understanding how a colorblind animal adopts near-perfect camouflage in a variety of backgrounds.”  New Scientist posted a video of the creatures adjusting to different backgrounds with split-second timing.

The panoply of life is so vast and varied, that even with teams of scientists around the world run no risk of understanding it all any time soon.  Whether in remote parts of the earth, or just under our feet, living things reveal new and amazing features that surprise PhDs and inspire entrepreneurs.

Sad to see grad students like Dan Wagner so thoroughly brainwashed by Darwin Vader that he is already manipulating the dork side of the farce.  He says that the flatworm, “through evolution,” has already “solved the regeneration problem.”  Evolution solves nothing.  It has no mind; therefore it sees no problems or solutions.  The statement makes no sense except in some epic myth that views evolution as a farce that permeates the university.  He could use a little regeneration himself.

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