February 15, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Tree Crocodiles and Other Surprising Animals

Scientists have a lot to learn about living animals before presuming to speak of long-lost extinct ones.

Tree croc:  Scientists have confirmed anecdotal reports that some crocodiles and alligators can climb trees.  “When most people envision crocodiles and alligators, they think of them waddling on the ground or wading in water — not climbing trees,” Science Daily reported.  “However, a new study has found that the reptiles can climb trees as far as the crowns.”  Scientists from U of Tennessee found 4 species on 3 continents (Australia, Africa and North America) engaging in tree climbing.  They think the reptiles do it to regulate their body temperature by basking, or to improve their view for surveillance.  Small ones could venture farther than big ones, but “the ability to climb vertically is a measure of crocodiles’ spectacular agility on land.”

Alpine bumblebeeScience Magazine reported that bumblebees appear capable of flying higher than Mt. Everest.  “The last thing you’d expect to see out your airplane window is a bumblebee cruising by,” the article says.  “But a new study suggests that the insects might be capable of such high-altitude jaunts.”  Chinese researchers studied some bees found at high altitude, and experimented with their limits, finding some capable of thriving 100 meters above the elevation of Everest.  The bees appear to compensate for the lower air pressure by flapping at the same speed but with greater amplitude.

High wings:  Quick: What bird flies the highest altitude?  According to the BBC News, its Reppell’s vulture, found at 37,000 feet (presumably with bumblebee companions).  The article gives “Seven surprising facts about vultures,” including their big appetites, ability to fly high and for long distances, and their varied diet and strong stomachs for digesting carrion.  “Bearded vultures are the only animals known to have a diet of 70-90% bone and their stomach acid allows them to take nutrients from what other species discard,” the article says, noting that the stomach acid can neutralize cholera, anthrax and even botulism toxin – the strongest poison in the world (one gram could kill a billion humans).  Thanks in part to vultures, the world is cleansed of decaying dead animals.  One vulture carrying two dead rats was blocked at the airport gate recently.  The reason?  He was only allowed one carrion.

Flying snakes:  A video clip on the BBC News, and an accompanying article, show that some snakes in Southeast Asia can shape themselves a bit like an S-shaped Frisbee and glide through the air for long distances after flinging itself off tree branches.  “Scientists say that the serpents radically alter their body shape to generate the aerodynamic forces needed to perform this feat.”  A photo caption reads, “The aerodynamic forces are comparable with those generated by a plane’s wing.”

Weightlifter ants:  Ants are capable of sustaining “astounding pressures” on their necks, Science Daily said, calling their necks “amazing” and worth studying for improving robot strength.  These aren’t specially trained ants, either, but just common American field ants.  Measurements with centrifuges show the neck can withstand 5,000 times the ant’s body weight, due to a combination of materials and the structure of the joints.  These leave the muscles free to lift and position objects.

Sneezing sponges:  This headline on Science Daily says it all: “Sneezing sponges suggest existence of sensory organ: Discovery challenges assumptions about ‘primitive’ organism.”  How can an animal without a nervous system have a sense organ?  That was the question a young biologist, Danielle Ludeman, decided to ask at the University of Alberta.  “The sponge is a filter feeder that relies totally on water flow through its body for food, oxygen and waste removal,” the article explained.  “Sneezing, a 30- to 45-minute process that sees the entire body of the sponge expand and contract, allows it to respond to physical stimuli such as sediment in the water.”  This seems to presuppose sensory ability, but where did it reside?  Ludeman and her supervisor, Sallie Leys, found ciliated cells lining the osculum.  As evolutionists, they are trying to figure out whether this evolved uniquely in the sponge or is common to all animals.  For a sponge, one of the simplest multicellular animals of all, to have a sense organ is “totally new,” not found in textbooks; “this doesn’t appear in someone’s concept of what sponges are permitted to have,” Leys said.

Controlled power dive:  Peregrine falcons can dive at 200 miles an hour, an article on Science Daily says.  Experiments with specially designed wind tunnels shows that their feathers appear to act as “self-adaptive flaps” during dives.  The body also changes shape during descent.

Monarch crisis:  Long live the king!  We end with a sad story of the precipitous decline of Monarch butterflies, reported by Live Science and Science Now.  These long-distance travelers, highlighted in the Illustra film Metamorphosis: The Beauty and Design of Butterflies, are in trouble – this time, it appears truly because of human interference.  It’s not just their home in the mountains of Mexico that is threatened by logging.  Use of pesticide-resistant crops in the USA has allowed many farmers to spray their fields with Roundup, killing off the milkweed on which the butterflies depend.  Drought in Texas may also be a factor.  Once a billion butterflies met in Mexico; now, 33.5 million were estimated during a 9-year decline.   Unless quick measures are taken to restore the milkweed, this long-distance migration, a wonder of nature, is at risk of being lost.

No matter where you look, the living world is filled with astonishing design.  How can anyone attribute these feats to blind, aimless forces?  Evolution amounts to a cop-out explanation, like saying, “Well, if they weren’t that way, they would have gone extinct” or “Stuff happens.”  Come now, and let us reason together.  Mistakes, in our day-to-day experience, do not generally cause exquisite design.  Good design is a product of engineering.  Why not make the logical inference?  These animals don’t just show passable design.  They show elegant, exquisite, astonishing design, as if Someone with omniscience, omnipotence, and wisdom had a plan.  Follow the evidence.


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