November 10, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Animal Plan: It Works Well

There were Greek and Roman naturalists who were intrigued by what they saw in the living world, but their observational tools were limited to their five senses.  Modern science has expanded our senses far beyond the capabilities known just a century ago.  We are privileged to live in an age of discovery that is revealing even more wonders beneath the surface of living things, wonders worth knowing about.  Here are just a few.

1.  Walking cells:  First observations of amoebas under simple microscopes showed them moving in an apparently primitive manner, sending out “pseudopods” (false feet) in the direction they wanted to go.  A new paper in PLoS ONE explains that they use their protusions for walking, gliding and swimming. “Cells move probably most of the time on 2D surfaces of soil particles, but may also experience clefts and obstacles,” Peter van Haastert wrote.1  “Cells have the ability to walk on these complicated surfaces with stronger adhesion, and to swim in water, all using essentially the same cycle of pseudopod formation with conversion to sideway extensions. This may allow the cells to effectively move optimally in its physically complex habitat.”

2.  Master of deep-sea disguise:  Aren’t squids and octopi simpler than mammals?  They can do things we could only dream of in science fiction, like becoming invisible.  Live Science reported on work by Sarah Zylinski of Duke University, who with colleagues captured deep-sea octopi and squid from 2,000 to 3,000 feet below the surface.  In the lab she found that the creatures can switch from opaque to transparent “in the blink of an eye.”  The BBC News included a short video clip where readers can watch the magical transformation occur.

3.  Hummingbird sings “How dry I am”:  How does a hummingbird cope with rain?  Unlike many other birds, hummingbirds stay active in wet weather.  Their trick is so quick it would be invisible without the tools of science.  High speed videos made by UC Berkeley show that they shake their little heads and wings somewhat like dogs coming out of a pool.  A BBC News article includes videos of how they do it.  In just a tenth of a second, the excess water is gone.  And that’s not all: “The cameras show that the delicate bird shakes its heads [sic] with such acceleration that it can reach a g-force of 34 (Formula 1 racing cars typically reach less than 6g).”  Yet despite the shake, rattle and roll, the birds maintain a stable flight pattern.  One of the authors of the study commented, “It is the extreme mobility – its head is going through 180 degrees in a 10th of a second or less – it is just extraordinary.”

4.  Cute parakeet tricks:  Some Aussie scientists decided to do a science project on parakeets, and discovered something amazing: birds use “optic flow” to avoid obstacles. This is the ability to process a constantly changing visual stream with two eyes (think of the flow of visual cues as you drive a video racing car).  “The results demonstrate, unequivocally and for the first time, that birds negotiate narrow gaps safely by balancing the speeds of image motion that are experienced by the two eyes and that the speed of flight is regulated by monitoring the speed of image motion that is experienced by the two eyes.”  Publishing in Current Biology,2 they found that this ability that has already been attributed to insects may apply to all daytime flying animals – perhaps even test pilots.  What was cool about the parakeets is their skill at avoiding obstacles in flight.  “We investigated the ability of budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) to fly through narrow passages in a collision-free manner,” they began (now you know the scientific name of your little budgie).  In test flights, the birds flew successfully through corridors lined with horizontal and vertical stripes, or combinations of the two, but got confused when one wall was blank.  Take-home message: “These results reveal that budgerigars negotiate narrow passages safely by steering a course such that the two eyes experience similar rates of image motion or ‘optic flow,’” they said, although other cues, like air speed or stereo ranging may simultaneously be at work.  “When both walls carry visual textures that provide optic flow (as is usually the case in a natural environment), this strategy ensures that the bird flies a collision-free path through the middle of the passage.”  Keep your bird cage bars close together.

5.  Bird planning:  Do birds have a sort of “mental time travel,” the ability to plan for the future?  Jay birds do, according to the BBC News.  Experiments on European jays by Lucy Cheke at the University of Cambridge show them caching peanuts for future binges, even when they are sick of them.  Offered peanuts and raisins, they will still cache them both even if they’ve just had plenty, as if knowing that tomorrow they will be hungry again.  This confirms previous studies with scrub jays (found in the United States).  A sidebar says, “A single bird can bury several thousand acorns each year, so jays play a crucial role in the spread of oak woodlands.”  The article mentioned other bird species that also appear to exhibit “mental time travel,” preparing for future needs.

6.  Mighty Mouse and Wonder Worm:  Will the Olympics ever be the same once this secret gets out?  Be prepared for a health revolution offering hope to the elderly and those with muscle diseases like muscular dystrophy, or for those of us who just want more energy.  Medical Xpress reported that tweaking a single gene makes muscles twice as strong.  “A team of researchers at EPFL, the University of Lausanne and the Salk Institute created super strong, marathon mice and nematodes by reducing the function of a natural inhibitor, suggesting treatments for age-related or genetically caused muscle degeneration are within reach.”  Simply by modulating a receptor named NCoR1that modulates the transcription of certain genes, they created “a strain of mighty mice whose muscles were twice as strong as those of normal mice.”  The mice could run longer and faster, and showed less fatigue than the control group. “They also exhibited better cold tolerance.” No deleterious side effects have been discovered so far.   In another test, they were able to produce obese mice that didn’t get diabetes; more on this at Science Daily.

7.  Mammoth X-rays:  X-ray images of two baby mammoths have been produced by the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology (see report at Live Science and image gallery on another Live Science page).  The images are so clear that not only the skeletons but internal organs and stomach contents are visible. The two infants had been buried in mud in Siberian permafrost.  Nicknamed Lyuba and Khroma, the two babies had larger kidneys than expected; this may have been an adaptation to their cold environment.  Another surprise to the scientists was finding skeletal differences between the two who were presumed to be the same species.  Even though it is admittedly “too early to say what those anatomical differences mean,” team member Daniel Fisher used them as an opportunity to speculate on evolution: “In any case, it gives us a clearer picture of the sort of variation that exists within lineages of organisms like mammoths,” he said. “It is variation like this that natural selection operates on to produce evolutionary change.

1.  Van Haastert PJM, 2011 "Amoeboid Cells Use Protrusions for Walking, Gliding and Swimming." PLoS ONE 6(11): e27532. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027532.

2. Bhagavatula et al., “Optic Flow Cues Guide Flight in Birds,” Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 21, 1794-1799, 27 October 2011.

That last Darwin stink bomb was out of character for these articles.  None of them referred to evolution, except for a passing reference in the BBC News article about octopus and squid camouflage, “the two creatures the scientists examined have evolved a clever way to hide.”  Need we remind anyone that evolution is not clever?  Evolution is not a person, a designer, or a designer substitute.  This is another BAD statement (Bald Assertion of Darwinism) that merely assumes evolution.  As for Daniel Fisher, he’s BAD, too.  Did he give any evidence of a baby mammoth evolving into something else?  Of course not.  There are substantial skeletal differences between humans, too, but we are all Homo sapiens.

Stuffing the Darwin BAD smells into the garbage can where they belong, we can enjoy the fresh air of amazing designs found throughout nature, whether in amoebas, in squid, in birds, in mammals, or wherever else we look.  These are just a tiny few of the exquisite adaptations found in the living world.  Evolution does not and cannot produce designs and adaptations.  For another reminder why not, read Randy Guliuzza’s latest installment in his series, “Darwin’s Sacred Imposter” at ICR.  Guliuzza takes back the ability to adapt from the environment and from Darwin’s mystical “selector” (a personification fallacy) and returns it where it belongs: to the intrinsic design in organisms provided by their Creator, enabling them to survive in changing conditions.

Footnote:  Plan ahead for your one-tenth-of-a-second celebration!  Tomorrow morning is 11/11/11, 11:11.11 (in case you missed, you have a year to plan for 12/12/12 12:12.12, so make like a jay bird).

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