February 17, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Small Animals Show Even More Design

Your smart phone is a triumph of miniaturization.  The first computers were room-filling monstrosities; now, you can hold more computing power than a Univac in the palm of your hand.  In the living world, we should’t despise small creatures.  They can pack a lot of technology into a small space.  Here are some record-setting examples of living miniatures reported recently.

Migratory mini-champ:  You’re an aerospace engineer, and your job is to design an aircraft that can fly across the world.  There’s a catch; the weight limit is Amazing Factsone ounce.  Odds are, you could never come up with a machine that could compete with the Northern Wheateater (Oenanthe oenanthe) – a humble little bird that flies 18,000 miles from the Arctic to Africa on its annual migration, though weighing less than two tablespoons of sugar (0.9 ounce).   Scientists who tracked them with geolocators were stunned at their endurance.  “They are incredible migratory journeys, particularly for a bird this size,” reported PhysOrg.  “Scaled for body size, this is one of the longest round-trip migratory journey of any bird in the world and raises questions about how a bird of this size is able to successfully undertake such physically demanding journeys twice a year, particularly for inexperienced juveniles migrating on their own.”

Micro-frogs:  Imagine having to sift through leaf litter to find out what’s making a high-pitched clicking noise.  That’s what Chris Austin and team did in New Guinea (see video on Live Science) to discover the world’s tiniest vertebrate: a frog named Paedophryne amauensis.  This little croaker makes a dime look like a large lilypad (photo on New Scientist).

Micro-chameleon:  If a frog on a dime is amazing, imagine seeing a tiny chameleon, wandering eyes and all, perched on the tip of a matchstick.  Look at National Geographic News and wonder.  “The extreme miniaturization of these dwarf reptiles might be accompanied by numerous specializations of the body plan,” a German zoologist said.

Micro-wasp:  Can a multicelled animal with wings, a digestive system, muscles, nerves and a brain be smaller than a single cell?  It sounds unbelievable, but a picture on Science Now shows the fairy wasp competing with an amoeba and a paramecium for size.  Science Daily shows how these tiny flying machines crawl around the faces of other insects hitchhiking rides and licking the mouth parts for nourishment.  But these tiny wasps don’t need to hitchhike; they have fully functioning wings.  In fact, it took Flight Artists, a film company in the Netherlands, a camera running 22,000 frames per second to show the wings flapping in detail.  The wings flap at 300 times per second in these tiny creatures and, though they are not the most graceful of flyers (see video on YouTube), they get where they need to go.  How can an animal made of cells get so small?  PhysOrg reported that scientists found that many of the cells, including more than 95% of its 7,400 neurons, have no nucleus.  Apparently the cells lose their nuclei during development.

Micro-survivors:  We already know that cells are tiny.  Microbes reported by Live Science, though, get along by living underneath one of the driest, saltiest, most life-unfriendly spots on Earth: the Atacama Desert of Chile.  Hidden within salt crystals just under the pavement-like surface are bacteria and archaea with factories of molecular machines carrying on the normal life processes of reproduction, motility, growth, signal processing and respiration, as if they have a paradise of their own.  Whether similar organisms are thriving on Mars, as the article suggests, is a separate question.

What’s more amazing: a condor with a 9-foot wingspan that soars effortlessly on air currents, or a bird the “size of an undernourished sparrow” that flaps its little wings and flies across the world?  Living organisms on this planet are so diverse and incredibly complex, we must never lose our sense of wonder at them, realizing that such things are only possible with embedded instructions directing molecular machines that not only carry on the processes of life, but accurately copy those genetic instructions and proofread them to ensure the continuation of their species.

Each one of us began as a miniature, too – a single fertilized cell that grew into a man or woman composed of trillions of diversified cells.  In each stage of your own life, whether micro and macro, you maintained the same genetic instructions that characterize you as a member of Homo sapiens.  Act like “man, the wise” and love your fellow creatures for the wonders they are.


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  • Richard D. Peachey says:

    Reminds me of lines from a lovely bluegrass song:
    “Wind that lifts small birds’ wings
    Blows us news of higher things”
    (from “Blossoms on the Almond Tree,” sung by Valerie Smith)

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