March 8, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Real Creatures with Superpowers

Check out the capabilities of these amazing little critters.

The longest-distance flyer is: a small dragonfly. A chicken may cross the road, but Pantala crosses oceans and continents. That’s what scientists at Rutgers deduce from comparing genes of these relatively small dragonflies. Robert Forman reports:

A dragonfly barely an inch and a half long appears to be animal world’s most prolific long distance traveler – flying thousands of miles over oceans as it migrates from continent to continent – according to newly published research.

Amazing FactsBiologists at Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) who led the study – which appears in the journal PLOS ONE – say the evidence is in the genes. They found that populations of this dragonfly, called Pantala flavescens, in locations as far apart as Texas, eastern Canada, Japan, Korea, India, and South America, have genetic profiles so similar that there is only one likely explanation. Apparently – somehow – these insects are traveling distances that are extraordinarily long for their small size, breeding with each other, and creating a common worldwide gene pool that would be impossible if they did not intermingle.

Evolutionists are baffled by this, because the dragonfly doesn’t need to do it.

Pantala leaves many of its fellow dragonflies even farther behind. The mysteries of evolution are such that while Pantala and its cousin the Green Darner (Anax junius) have developed into world travelers, Ware says that by contrast, other members of the family “don’t ever leave the pond on which they’re born – traveling barely 36 feet away their entire lives.”

Vanishing act: There’s a beetle that water skis (pause to think about that). Here’s the clincher: it skis so fast, it appears to vanish. Watch the video clip on New Scientist showing the water lily beetle in slow-motion. It flaps its wings for propulsion, and sets its tiny water-repelling legs down on the water to skitter across the surface super fast. A human skiing at a comparable pace would go 310 mph (500 kph), the article says. This is one of the fastest speeds ever measured for any insect on the water. Their anatomy is “well adapted” for this behavior. Hydrophobic legs and wings with a lot of lift give them an “elegant solution” that is giving engineers ideas for low-flying aircraft or water-surface robots. How did this come about? It is, therefore it evolved, one biologist thinks; the unique anatomical adaptation “suggests that skimming is evolutionarily important,” remarked Jake Socha from Virginia Tech, who had studied flying snakes. He was surprised, though, “that they have something this elegant.

Super night vision goggles: This story from Science Daily makes a nice addition to yesterday’s entry on biomimetics. Superman would be envious of the night vision of moths. Look what a scientist says about their amazing eyes:

Nature has evolved simple yet powerful adaptations, from which we have taken inspiration in order to answer challenges of future technologies,” explained Professor Ravi Silva, Head of the Advanced Technology Institute.

Moths’ eyes have microscopic patterning that allows them to see in the dimmest conditions. These work by channelling light towards the middle of the eye, with the added benefit of eliminating reflections, which would otherwise alert predators of their location. We have used the same technique to make an amazingly thin, efficient, light-absorbent material by patterning graphene in a similar fashion.”

There’s more to it than just the anatomy of the eye facets. Current Biology reports that an important part of their visual acuity lies in the software. It lets them achieve what seems physically impossible. In “Neural Summation in the Hawkmoth Visual System Extends the Limits of Vision in Dim Light,” three scientists found that the moth brain can filter out noise and sum up spatial and temporal signals to increase the signal-to-noise ratio, giving them 100 times better visual acuity than achievable by the optics alone.  As a result, they can easily observe motion under starlight conditions. Once again, this gives optical engineers ideas:

We show that spatial and temporal summation combine supralinearly to substantially increase contrast sensitivity and visual information rate over four decades of light intensity [i.e., over four orders of magnitude], enabling hawkmoths to see at light levels 100 times dimmer than without summation. Our results reveal how visual motion is calculated neurally in dim light and how spatial and temporal summation improve sensitivity while simultaneously maximizing spatial and temporal resolution, thus extending models of insect motion vision derived predominantly from diurnal flies. Moreover, the summation strategies we have revealed may benefit manmade vision systems optimized for variable light levels.

They applied the principles on a very-low-light image of the words “Current Biology” and brought it out of fuzzy noise into clear text.

What can you do with a million neurons? A bumblebee brain has been imaged in 3-D by scientists at the University of Guelph. They’re interested in learning how this brain, made up of about 1 million neurons (just “0.00001 per cent of the number found in the human brain”) allows these insects to not only fly accurately, but navigate. Their foraging methods are attracting computer scientists. “We’ve also been looking at how tiny-brained bumblebees find practical solutions to challenging routing problems,” the press release says. “Understanding how comparatively simple brains can find functional solutions to complex problems may be very important in allowing us to develop smarter and simpler ways to do the same.” Their non-destructive 3-D imaging technique should prove useful analyzing other insects’ brains as well.

Extra! Extra!

While we’re talking superpowers, let’s stray from the insect world and talk about a jellyfish with “amazing superpowers” according to National Geographic. This animal’s capability for regeneration makes it almost immortal. Juli Berwald writes, “The moon jellyfish can age backward, form hordes of clones, and regenerate lost body parts, a new study says.” It’s like those characters in the movies.

Emblazoned with a four-leaf clover on its back and lined with a fringe of thin tentacles, the moon jellyfishAurelia, is a veritable pantheon of power. 

It not only regenerates like Deadpool, it ages backward like Benjamin Button and forms hordes of clones like Jamie Madrox the Multiple Man.

Because of the stages in its lifecycle from polyp to medusa, it has been compared to the butterfly that undergoes a similar metamorphosis. What’s amazing is that moon jellies can morph back into the polyp stage. Some scientists think that understanding their extreme regenerative powers may provide insight into what causes cancer. There’s clearly a lot to learn from one of the “primitive” species that emerged in the Cambrian Explosion. “Look out, Spider-Man,” Berwald ends.

Evolution would predict simple to complex. Creation would predict complexity all the way down, each creature well matched to its habitat and its needs. If the pinnacle of evolution, the human brain, cannot grasp the complexity of the smallest and simplest organisms, then creation is the winner hands down. Get lost, Charlie.




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