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Does Evolution Produce Winners?

Referees at UCLA are calling the shots in an unusual sport: the evolution game.  Mammals, birds and fish swept the medals.  The losers?  crocodiles, alligators, and a “living fossil” reptile called the tuatara.  According to the judges, the more the biodiversity, the more a group wins points; the more their species go extinct or remain […]

Nanotech Blurs Line With Biophysics

Machines on the molecular scale – in the literature these days, one needs to dig to find whether a news article is talking about man-made machinery or the living cell.  Both employ laws of physics to do work.  Notice how seamless the connection is in the following examples. Kinesin tightrope walk:  Scientists at Northwestern University […]

Dragonflies Are Marathon Champs

Step aside, monarch butterflies: some of your fellow insects beat your distance flying wings down.  The BBC News reported on findings by a biologist in the Maldives about dragonflies that migrate 14,000 to 18,000 km from southern India to East Africa and back – including 800 km over open sea.  How these insects can navigate […]

How Did the Turtle Get Its Shell?

The cover story of Science this week is about turtle evolution.  The caption on the cover illustration, which compares the skeleton of a turtle, chicken and mouse, reads, “The turtle body plan is unusual in that the ribs are transformed into a carapace, and the scapula, situated outside the ribs in other animals, is found […]

How the Animals Learned to Count

Any evolutionary article that begins with “How…” should be checked for Kipling-style just-so storytelling.  Characteristics to watch for include (1) fanciful speculation without evidence: i.e., “made-up” tales that provide an answer to a childish question without appeal to rigorous proof, and (2) statements made with dogmatic authority, like a parent would explain to a child […]

Bees’ Knees Bridle the Breeze

Bees stabilize their flight in windy conditions by extending their hind legs.  Even though this costs 30% more energy and produces more drag, it provides stabilization against turbulence by increasing their moment of inertia (i.e., their resistance to being flipped over).     A team of scientists videotaped the insects flying when blasted by powerful […]

Survival of the Slowest

Without stopping to think, the BBC News claimed that evolution is slowing snails down.  “Natural selection is favouring snails with reduced metabolic rates, researchers in Chile have discovered.”  Why would evolution do such a thing?  Isn’t the proverbial slowest of beasts already at risk of predators?  Not necessarily.  Look on the positive side: “Snails with […]

Animal Flight Control: Where’s the Evolution?

A couple of articles in Science last week discussed the marvels of flight control in birds.  “Being earthbound save for the ability to fly airplanes and helicopters, humans stand in awe of animals that power their own movement through the air by flapping their wings, and of the spectacular maneuvers that some of these animals […]

Evolutionary Explanations: Substance, Seasoning, or Storytelling?

A scientific theory should explain why certain phenomena in nature are the way they are.  This layman’s view, though simplistic, expects that a theory should also predict new phenomena before they are observed.  In many science reports on evolution, however, one finds evolutionary theory tacked on as an explanation after the fact, when the theory […]

Quick, Make Like an Ant

Ants deserve a lot of respect, despite being a nuisance in the kitchen.  The very fact they are so effective at bugging us is a testament to their ingenuity in foraging, communicating and organizing themselves into successful colonies.  We might just gain some valuable knowledge by watching them more closely. Foraging: Live Science says that […]

See Like a Bee, Fly Like a Fly

An aerospace engineer in Australia was inspired by insects to design a better way for missiles to find their targets.  Aviation Week reported on work announced by the Australian Government Department of Defense.  “Bioseeker,” a new guidance system for smarter weapons, was inspired by insect navigation.  The Hon. Warren Snowdon, on his website as Minister […]

Modeling Solar Cells on Butterflies

Sunlight is free – if we could just learn how to use it better.  For decades, engineers have been trying to improve the efficiency of solar cells.  Why not look at nature?  Science Daily reported on work going on in China and Japan: “The discovery that butterfly wings have scales that act as tiny solar […]

What Mean These Observations?

Science news outlets report many interesting findings every week.  It’s not always clear, though, whether the conclusions drawn from them are warranted by the data.  Here are some recent cases: Jaws of steel:  A skull labeled Australopithecus robustus was studied for the force its jaws could generate.  Interpretation: “Early humans had jaws of steel.”  With […]

Darwin Missed the Pink Iguanas

The news media are excited about pink iguanas found in the Galapagos Islands.  The rare type was discovered accidentally in 1986 but received almost no attention till now.  Reports with pictures can be found on Live Science, PhysOrg, New Scientist and the BBC News, based on the paper by Gentile et al in PNAS.1   […]

Nature Struts Darwin Gems

Like a showcase of pearl-handled revolvers, an armory of evidences Nature calls “Darwin’s Gems” have been exhibited to warn creationists that Darwin Day will be defended next month with a show of force.  The authors, Henry Gee (former editor of Nature), Rory Howlett and Philip Campbell have made their 15 Evolutionary Gems freely available “and […]
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