April 4, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Animal Excellence Exceeds Mere Survival

A tiny bird could live like other birds do without having to fly non-stop for 1,700 miles.  Other examples abound of over-design in the animal world.

Bird marathon: As shown for the Arctic tern in Flight: The Genius of Birds, new miniature geolocators are opening windows on animal migrations. Ornithologists were stunned to find that the blackpoll warbler, a literal “bird in the hand” as to size, could fly non-stop for over 1,700 miles in just 2-3 days. How can it store enough fat reserves for such a marathon flight? Given its small size, its feat is astonishing. Science Magazine and Science Daily took note of this finding. Live Science reports,

Amazing FactsIf you account for body scale and size, the blackpoll warbler is the hands-down winner,” Rimmer said. “I’m used to being amazed by birds because they do a lot of cool, extraordinary things, but it’s hard to top this one.”

Scientists have long suspected that the blackpoll warbler is an amazing nonstop flier, crossing the Atlantic from the Northeast to northern South America in just two to three days. (Occasionally, exhausted birds would land en masse on ships hundreds of miles from the Atlantic Coast during stormy weather.) Now, they finally have proof.

Bat non-demolition derby: How do swarms of bats keep from crashing into each other? That’s what National Geographic asked. Answer: “The mammals obey ‘traffic rules,’ using their built-in sonar to track each others’ positions in the air,” according to research by the University of Southern Denmark (see 3/24/15 and 3/28/15).

Seahorse tails:  Mention “prehensile tail” and you probably think of a gibbon or monkey. Seahorses have them, too, says Science Daily, and their secrets are being uncovered by the Fellowship of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). The tails possess the “seemingly contradictory characteristics of flexibility and rigidity,” the scientists found, eager to learn about that for their own designs.

Ants in space: Take an ant farm to the International Space Station (ISS); what happens? A kid could only dream of a science project that good. The BBC News reports that the ants learned quickly to “grapple well in zero-G,” an environment they never face on the earth and could not have evolved to prepare for.

Ants carried to the International Space Station were still able to use teamwork to search new areas, despite falling off the walls of their containers for up to eight seconds at a time.

Their “collective search” was hampered but still took place, biologists said.

The insects also showed an impressive knack for regaining their footing after taking a zero-g tumble.

Living in poison fumes:  Despite the toxic gases and suffocating fumes around some volcanoes, Czech researchers found numerous organisms living in and around that environment. In areas that would kill a human, micro-organisms were thriving in an area previously thought too hostile for life. (PhysOrg)

Pupfish holdouts: A few thousand years ago, Death Valley was a lake 100 feet deep (Lake Manly), filled with fish. Now it’s the hottest place on earth, and water is very scarce. As their watery habitats dry up, desert pupfish are on the edge of extinction. Stacy Brooks says on PhysOrg that they can go without breathing in their highly-saline environment for up to 5 hours.

The tortoise flip: It seems mean to put a turtle on its back, but researchers at the University of Belgrade wanted to learn about the biomechanics of turning right side up.  Nature sums up the findings: “They found that larger animals of both sexes spent more time righting themselves than smaller ones. Males that had larger plates along the rear edge of their shell — useful for adding stability during mating — also took longer to flip themselves back over.” The amazing thing is they could do it at all.

Another gecko trick: We all love how they can walk on glass and ceilings. Geckos can also turn water droplets into popcorn (see ENV). Another trick is reported by Bob Yirka on PhysOrg: repelling dirt and bacteria with their skin (this is a follow-up to the “water popcorn” discovery). Researchers poured red wine, cola, soy sauce and other liquids on gecko skin and it ran right off. Then another discovery was made:

Even more impressive, the team found that when they deposited a bit of the type of bacteria that causes bad breath in people, onto the gecko skin, the skin somehow killed it after just one day, it—the researchers do not know how, but suspect it had something to do with the size and/or shape of the bacteria coming into contact with the spikes on the skin. Interestingly, human stem cells placed on the gecko were not killed, and in fact grew.

Someone sees antibacterial surfaces for hospital gear coming with this trick.

The design inference is in the details. Actually, it is visible at all scales, from molecule to biosphere. Do such capabilities arise from genetic accidents, when many of these abilities vastly exceed the needs of mere survival? This is over-design, and we should be over-joyed to witness it.



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