July 29, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Animal Superheroes

Here are some animals, some common and some little-known, whose abilities astonish scientists.

Antman superman: The small size of most ants belies their capabilities. PhysOrg reveals how “ants use brain and brawn to haul heavy loads” with both body physics and teamwork. “Ants have an astonishing ability to mix collective muscle with individual initiative for heavy lifting, a study published Tuesday has revealed,” the article begins.

Ants are among the very few animals, besides humans, that organise among themselves to collectively carry loads far heavier than an individual member of their species.

One of the challenges, for ants or humans, is finding a balance between synchronised action, or conformity, on the one hand, and the flexibility needed to adapt, on the other.

The article illustrates how they find that balance with three video clips of coordinated action. The first clip shows scouts helping a moving crew go in the right direction. The last clip shows dozens of ants moving together to carry an object too heavy for even a few to move. How did this marvel of cooperation come to be? The default answer is always Darwinian (or in this case, Lamarckian): “Animals living in groups—a school of fish, a flock of sheep—have evolved to act in concert, a quality needed for coordinated movement.” For details, see the source paper (open access) in Nature Communications. The BBC News says the lead researcher got intrigued by this subject by watching ants steal the cat food.

Ant cleanliness: Speaking of ants, how do they stay clean? They don’t carry a purse with a comb or brush. That equipment is built into their bodies. Considering that an ant antenna is pretty delicate, this cleaner brush must be super sensitive so as not to cause damage. And it is; look at this electron micrograph of the antenna cleaner on PhysOrg. No manufacturer could make a brush more elegant; the device, shaped somewhat like a lobster claw, has three clusters of hairs for different functions. It is shown in action in a video demonstration embedded in the article. The cleaner works so well, Cambridge researchers are getting ideas for similar tools to clean electronic parts.

Amazing Facts“The arrangement of ‘bristles’, ‘combs’ and ‘brush’ lets the cleaning structure work as a particle filter that can clean different sized dirt particles with a single cleaning stroke,” says Hackmann. “Modern nanofabrication techniques face similar problems with surface contamination, and as a result the fabrication of micron-scale devices requires very expensive cleanroom technology. We hope that understanding the biological system will lead to building bioinspired devices for cleaning on micro and nano scales.”

Lobster eye: A soft X-ray detector has been invented that mimics the lobster eye. NASA scientists at Goddard Spaceflight Research Center give credit to the lobster for an X-ray camera that will be used to measure the solar wind around Earth and the other planets. “Our imager operates on the same principle as the lobster eye, which is how it got its name,” Science Daily reports, “by focusing soft X-ray photons onto a plane located at half the radius of the sphere.”

Shark in the dark:  What’s the lantern shark’s favorite song? “You Light Up My Life.” Covered with glowing cells in elaborate markings, these deep-water sharks have sparked scientists’ curiosity for years. Now, Science Magazine says the purpose of the light has been revealed:

Deep-sea researchers have struggled to understand why these markings exist; they don’t lure prey, they’re certainly not helpful for camouflage, and they don’t warn predators to stay away. So what are they for? Finding a mate, according to a new study. The flashy markings help facilitate intraspecific communication, or communication within the same species, researchers report online today in Royal Society Open Science. It can’t be easy attracting a partner in the dark; males and females glow from different parts of their bodies and scientists think that this helps them locate a mate.

To a Darwinian, bioluminescence would have to be one of the most spectacular examples of “convergent evolution” in nature, since it is found in many unrelated organisms, including insects, bony fish, cartilaginous fish, and even mushrooms. Avoiding that controversy, the article applies a new sophoxymoroniac term with a little handwaving: “Whatever the reason, the glowing marks have been an evolutionary success story; about 40 species of lanternsharks now sport them.”

Pigeon chain of command: The social structure of pigeons in flight just gained respect. PhysOrg says that “Flocks in which each individual follows just a single other bird, allowing information to rapidly pass down this ‘chain of command’, perform best at navigating accurately to a desired location,” according to a new study from Oxford. A co-author of the study paper says, “‘Perhaps most interestingly, we find that the presence of hierarchical social structure enables the group to both make decisions more accurately and to do so when the information it relies upon becomes worse.”

Dino bite: The might T. rex had more than just muscle powering its bone-crushing bite. New findings about their teeth, reported in Live Science, show that they had microscopic serrated edges. The “fascinating” and “unexpected” finding turns what researchers thought were accidents into a design feature. “The investigation showed that these structures weren’t cracks at all, but deep folds within the tooth that strengthened each individual serration and helped prevent breakage when the dinosaur pierced through its prey,” the lead researcher said. Interestingly, serrations of a different sort have been found in Dimetrodon, a reptile that lived before the dinosaurs on the evolutionary timeline, and in the Komodo dragons that are alive today.

Dolphin air champions: Dolphins are respiration champs, PhysOrg says. Researchers measured airflow rates of the marine mammals:

They were impressed to see that the dolphins could inhale at flow rates of up to 33.4 l/s; however, when they measured the flow rate as the dolphins exhaled, they were astonished to register flows of up to 137.6 l/s. ‘The cetaceans are the true champions of respiratory physiology‘, says Fahlman, putting the dolphins’ performance into context by saying, ‘The maximal flow rates are at least twice, and probably three times, higher than those in the terrestrial champion, the horse‘. And when the team analysed the airflows, they realised that the animals could exchange almost all of the air in their lungs in a single breath: ‘Their vital capacity is very high’, says Fahlman, who publishes the discovery in The Journal of Experimental Biology.

As viewers of Illustra’s new film Living Waters know, dolphins are also echolocation champions. Science Daily reports on attempts to mimic this ability with a new graphene microphone and ultralight receiver.  “Sea mammals and bats use high-frequency sound for echolocation and communication, but humans just haven’t fully exploited that before, in my opinion, because the technology has not been there,” an engineer said. It’s unlikely human attempts will equal the efficiency of the dolphin’s system. Captain Dave Anderson comments in the film that if someone could design an echolocation system and have it work as well as the dolphin’s, “they’d make billions of dollars.”

Whale of a record: Isabela the pygmy blue whale has set a new migration record, Science Magazine reports. She “migrated a minimum of 5200 km, the longest recorded latitudinal migration made by any Southern Hemisphere blue whale on record.” Isabela is 82 feet long and weighs 100 tons, Science Daily says. Blue whales are thought to be the largest animals that ever existed, larger even than the mighty dinosaurs.

The Biomimicry Institute has an attractive website called AskNature.org, where scientists are studying plants and animals to find solutions to problems that can improve our lives. “How does nature land gently?” one screen asks against a large photo of a honeybee. Drone engineers are learning from bees, the screen shows. The theme of the website is that nature provides limitless design solutions if we just look around.

God has given us a world of amazing creatures. There appears to be no shortage of material to study, and that’s in a world largely impoverished of species after the Flood. It’s good to see more and more scientists looking at nature with a focus on design. That focus should be encouraged.

Remember to order your copy of Living Waters to bask in the beauty of natural design. Or, if you are the real video-audiophile type, wait till the Blu-ray edition comes out; should be soon.



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