April 28, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Mighty Mite and Spider Gymnast: Arachnids Inspire Scientists

We have a new land speed record.  You’d have to run 1300 mph to keep up with this critter at its scale.

Mite Racing Gold

Amazing FactsA tiny mite has just whizzed past the previous record-holder for fastest land animal.  In terms of body lengths per second, Paratarsotomus macropalpis (a tiny desert mite found in Southern California deserts), “runs 20 times faster than a cheetah and the equivalent of a person running 1300 miles per hour,” according to Science Daily based on a press release from the Federation for the American Societies for Experimental Biology.  At 322 body lengths per second, this mite easily outpaced the Australian tiger beetle, previously called the fastest land animal on earth, which tops out at at only 177 body lengths per second.  A cheetah, by contrast, only hits 16 body lengths per second, and the fastest human, currently Usain Bolt, tops out at 6.2 bl/sec according to a blog.  The mite, about the size of a sesame seed, can average 192 bl/sec, still faster than the tiger beetle’s top speed.

The new world record was discovered by Samuel Rubin, a college student at Pitzer College in California, who also noticed that the mite can withstand “temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), a temperature significantly higher than the upper lethal temperature of most animals.”  According to the press release, “The mites also are adept at stopping and changing directions extremely quickly, attributes the researchers are investigating further for potential insights that may be relevant to bioengineering applications.”  Rubin sees gold ahead: “looking deeper into the physics of how they accomplish these speeds could help inspire revolutionary new designs for things like robots or biomimetic devices.”

Science Magazine agrees, adding another amazing tidbit: “Future studies of these mites (which pick up and put down each foot about 135 times a second) could help engineers develop superfast, superagile robots.”

Spider Gymnastic Gold

Speaking of arachnids, a larger one—a spider—displays gymnastic prowess.  A press release from the Senckenberg Research Institute tells about Cebrennus rechenbergi, a nocturnal spider found in Morocco, that can catapult itself along with a series of flic-flac jumps (also called flipflops by gymnasts).  This gives it a speed boost when escaping predators or descending hills: “At almost 2 meters per second, the flic-flac jumps allow the spider to move twice as fast as in simple walking mode.”  This spider’s coordinated movements are also leading to engineering advances:

Prof. Dr. Rechenberg was so inspired by the flic-flac spider’s ingenious mode of locomotion that he developed a 25cm long model of a spider robot. The Tabbot, named after “Tabacha” (the word for spider in the Berber language), can move by walking as well as by turning somersaults. “This robot may be employed in agriculture, on the ocean floor or even on Mars,” according to its inventor.

Beetle Hunting Gold, and Darwinist Dross

While not an arachnid, the tiger beetle, having lost to the mite in the speed category, may still win gold in the floor exercise or steeplechase.  A press release from Cornell University describes how its high-speed seemingly-random trajectories while chasing prey actually give it the optimum strategy for reaching its target.  A Cornell biologist, Jane Wang, found that the beetle’s turns follow a mechanical law, which she attributed to evolution:

From an evolutionary point of view, the sensing and moving are intimately connected, Wang continued. Some of the hundreds of thousands of neurons that function for sight are directly connected to the machinery for locomotion, which is directly related to the animal’s instinct to survive – that is, eat. Thus, studying how animals move can provide insight into how they sense their environment, and vice versa, she said.

But what would a professor of mechanical engineering and physics know about blind, unguided processes?  The two clauses of that opening sentence above do not seem to bear an intimate connection.

Evolutionary speculations in design articles are like wood alcohol poured into your tea.





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