January 21, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Living Surprises, Living Hopes

Here are ten recent discoveries about plants and animals that are surprising and inspiring.  Some of them may lead to technologies that can improve our own lives.

Fish-o-pus:  Slinking through Indonesian waters is a master of impersonation: an octopus that can elude predators by imitating a fish.  But that’s just part of the story.  Scientists have now found a fish that imitates the octopus that imitates the fish!  Story on Science News.  The jawfish apparently hangs around with the mimic octopus to share in its protective strategy.

Mind meld with apes:  German scientists studied the four anthropoid apes, chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans, Science Daily said, and found that some (but not all) appeared to be able to calculate risks before acting.  Their experiment involved choices between small banana pieces in reliable spots, and larger banana pieces hidden behind variable locations.  The gorillas didn’t do so well.  It’s not clear whether readers will be as impressed with this as the researchers were, considering that birds seem to do even better at these kinds of brain teasers.  Last month, Live Science reported  that pigeon brains are on par with primates.

Brazilian worm-eating plant:  A new kind of carnivorous plant has been found in the Cerrado of Brazil, a unique tropical biodiversity hotspot.  Reported in PNAS (January 9, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1114199109), the plant Philcoxia apparently uses sticky underground leaves to trap and eat roundworms.  PhysOrg has a picture and summary of the predatory plant.

Flower powerPhysOrg featured a researcher at Kansas State that is trying to untangle sunflower genetics.  Different species living in different climates have apparently become successful through gene duplications, hybridization and mobile genetic elements – pieces of genetic code that can relocate and insert themselves in different parts of the genome.  Although Mark Ungerer is couching his explanations in evolutionary terms, the article seems to indicate a kind of controlled adaptability that has occurred recently.  It seems premature to credit unguided processes with success at adapting to climates as different as Texas and Canada, considering Ungerer’s humble admission, “Although virtually all plants and animals have these types of sequences in their genomes, we still know very little about what phenomena cause them to amplify and make extra copies of themselves.

Rhinoceros foot puzzle:  The Royal Veterinary College is playing footsie with rhinos to see how their “stumpy little feet” can support so much weight.  Their weight-bearing strategy is apparently different from that of elephants.  According to the BBC News article, Dr. John Hutchinson has another reason for investigating this unknown marvel: “From understanding the feet of rhinos, as an example of a big land mammal, we could draw inspiration and understand how to build devices that can handle heavy loads and carry them around while moving.”

Pause for paws:  Speaking of feet, why don’t dogs get frostbite from walking in the snow?  Think of those brave Alaskan huskies on the Iditerod.  Actually, dogs can get frostbitten paws, depending on the breed, but they rarely do.  PhysOrg told how scientists from Tokyo checked out the paws of four dog breeds and discovered an ingenious heat-exchanging system in the blood vessels that not only transfers warmth to the bare surfaces of paws but ensures blood returning to the heart is warm enough.  Cool pet tip: spray the paws with cooking spray before taking your best friend into the snow.

Gecko fish:  Ever heard of the northern clingfish?  These are small fish on the north Pacific coast that have mastered the art of clinging to shoreline rocks as they search for food.  Remarkably, their modified fins use a similar adhesion technique as geckos, reported Science Magazine (20 January 2012: Vol. 335 no. 6066 p. 277, doi: 10.1126/science.335.6066.277).  Their modified belly fins have tiny hairs that make use of atomic forces, adhering to rough surfaces better than suction cups.  An undergraduate student found that the clingfish can support 180 times their own weight.

Do the fish walk:  The headline at Life’s Little Mysteries promises to show how “Discovery Reveals How Fish Learned to Walk,” but the article is actually about real living fish called Pacific leaping blennies that do the twist as they flip around the intertidal zones of Guam.  These are not Darwin fish; they have no feet, and their muscles are really not different from those of other fish.  Their flip-flop “walk” is more an adaptive behavior than evolution.  Researcher Tonia Hsieh was astonished to find half her lab blennies walked out of the tank overnight.  Then she found some of them on the wall.

Leaping lizards:  Speaking of Tonia Hsieh, a biologist at Temple University who developed a childhood fascination with lizards and other animals, she has a cool lab to study lizard leaps in slow motion.  She especially likes the basilisk, a lizard that stands up and runs fast, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer – so fast it can run over water, giving the nickname the “Jesus lizard.”  You can watch these amazing lizards in action on Hsieh’s track at the Temple University website.  “It’s important to realize that animals do not have a specific program to tell them how to react to each and every possible perturbation scenario in the real world,” she said, yet they manage to keep going even when encountering a slippery spot.  Understanding their locomotion strategies, she believes, can help robot designers walk out of the wheel rut.  Her research might also help the elderly prevent falls.

Miracle tree:  Readers may remember Moringa oleifera, the “miracle tree” that not only provides food and fuel, but can actually disinfect water for poor countries (3/09/2010).  Previously we learned that crushed Moringa seeds, sprinkled in turbid water, took out the turbidity and killed bacteria.  One problem was making the process sustainable and affordable.  Without proper techniques, the dissolved organic compounds could return to cloud the water again.  Now, according to PhysOrg, clean drinking water for the poor is a step closer to reality.  The American Chemical Society published a paper by scientists who identified the protein in the seeds that has the antibacterial effect.  By attaching it to sand, they can attract both the bacteria and the dissolved organic compounds to the sand particles, which carry the impurities to the bottom, leaving clean water suitable for drinking.  The paper is published in the ACS journal Langmuir.  The new process is inexpensive and sustainable, said Science Daily, and a billion people stand ready to benefit from this one remarkable plant, “one of the world’s most useful trees.”

We love good science here.  Most of this is good old, Darwin-free scientific discovery.  What has evolution done for any of it?  Sure, the sunflower wizard believes in evolution, but he was watching built-in adaptation tricks of the genome in action, not some external “natural selector” corralling chance mutations.  Sure, Tonia believes in evolution, but her lizard track meets are designed to improve senior health and robotics.  In every case, evolution had nothing of substance to add to the science.  What wonderful benefits await poor people from research on how to employ a tree’s built-in codes to purify water!  Evolution is like a ball and chain on this kind of science.  Take it off, and let science take off.

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