Tag Archive: Nature


ACCORDING to Dante, the Styx is not just a river but a vast, deathly swamp filling the entire fifth circle of hell. Perhaps the staff of New Scientist will see it when our time comes but, until then, Lake Natron in northern Tanzania does a pretty good job of illustrating Dante’s vision.

Unless you are an alkaline tilapia (Alcolapia alcalica) – an extremophile fish adapted to the harsh conditions – it is not the best place to live. Temperatures in the lake can reach 60 °C, and its alkalinity is between pH 9 and pH 10.5.

The lake takes its name from natron, a naturally occurring compound made mainly of sodium carbonate, with a bit of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) thrown in. Here, this has come from volcanic ash, accumulated from the Great Rift valley. Animals that become immersed in the water die and are calcified.

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With two diminutive legs locked into a leap-ready position, the tiny jumper bends its body taut like an archer drawing a bow. At the top of its legs, a minuscule pair of gears engage—their strange, shark-fin teeth interlocking cleanly like a zipper. And then, faster than you can blink, think, or see with the naked eye, the entire thing is gone. In 2 milliseconds it has bulleted skyward, accelerating at nearly 400 g’s—a rate more than 20 times what a human body can withstand. At top speed the jumper breaks 8 mph—quite a feat considering its body is less than one-tenth of an inch long.

This miniature marvel is an adolescent issus, a kind of planthopper insect and one of the fastest accelerators in the animal kingdom. As a duo of researchers in the U.K. report today in the journalScience, the issus also the first living creature ever discovered to sport a functioning gear. “Jumping is one of the most rapid and powerful things an animal can do,” says Malcolm Burrows, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge and the lead author of the paper, “and that leads to all sorts of crazy specializations.”

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Visible spectrum. Certain bright colors and petal shapes attract certain pollinators.

Flowers are nature’s ad men. They’ll do anything to attract the attention of the pollinators that help them reproduce. That means spending precious energy on bright pigments, enticing fragrances and dazzling patterns.

Now, scientists have found another element that contributes to flowers’ brand: their distinct electric field.

Anne Leonard, who studies bees at the University of Nevada, says our understanding of pollinator-flower communication has been expanding for decades.

“Flowers do a lot of things you might not expect,” Leonard says. “We observe they have these distinct bright, beautiful colors, patterns, scents.”

But we don’t often stop to consider that this incredible display is all an attempt to attract bees and other pollinators. These displays don’t just consist of things humans notice. There are also patterns in the ultraviolet spectrum, petal temperatures and textures and shapes.

“We’ve found that by producing these combinations of sensory stimuli, the plant basically makes its flowers easier for the bee to learn and remember,” Leonard says.

That means the bee can forage more efficiently, and flowers are more likely to be pollinated.

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Researchers have discovered that dung beetles can navigate in straight lines using nothing more than the soft glow from our home galaxy.

That’s kind of awesome, but it’s worth asking, at this point, just why the heck dung beetles have any need to navigate. They find poo. They make poo into balls. They roll the balls off somewhere, and then lay their eggs in them and bury them. Seems straightforward, right? But that’s the amazing thing: it’s absolutely straightforward. Once a dung beetle has created a ball of poo, it heads away from the pile as fast as it can go in a dead nuts straight line. It goes around whatever obstacles are in its way, but continues going straight, which is quite remarkable considering that it’s often traveling backwards and partially upside-down.

So why do they care about straight lines? The answer seems to be that the beetles with poo balls are just trying to get away from all the other beetles in ’round the pile as fast as they possibly can.

Making a ball of excrement that’s larger than you are is a lot of work, and once you put one together, other beetles will try and steal it. The quickest and most efficient route of escape from a poo pile is a straight line, so that’s what the beetles do. They’re quite clever about it, too, able to sense when they’ve veered off course and using light from the sun to reorient themselves. That’s all well and good during the day, when the sun’s out, but what happens at night?

Research (performed by outfitting the beetles with little hats to block their view) has shown that the bugs’ compound eyes are sensitive enough to detect light from the Moon, the stars, and most impressively, the Milky Way itself. Apparenty, all a dung beetle needs is one fixed pattern in the sky that it can recognize, and then it’s able to use that pattern to make sure that it’s always moving in a straight line. Along with its giant ball of poo. Thank you, science!

Sailing Stone

Mother Nature does a lot of cool things, some of which continue to elude even modern science.

Every year big rocks, known as sailing stones, appear to move across the flat desert in Death Valley, California, without any help from humans or animals.

The mysterious moving rocks, which can weigh up to 700 pounds, leave behind trails that can extend for several hundred feet and may not necessarily move in a straight line.

No one is exactly sure what causes these rocks to scuttle across the 3-mile-long swath of sun-baked terrain known as Racetrack Playa. The phenomenon has not been observed anywhere else. But most scientists think that the rocks are pushed by strong winds after a rain storm.

The rocks tumble down onto the pancake-flat ground from surrounding mountains. A thin layer of ice or mud creates a slick surface that may help the rocks glide.

Of course, we can’t be certain how this all works until someone sees the event in person. For now, we just have some very cool pictures to admire.

Sailing Stones

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A decoy spider hangs below its much smaller builder, suspected to be a new species in the genus CyclosaPhoto: Phil Torres.

A spider that builds elaborate, fake spiders and hangs them in its web has been discovered in the Peruvian Amazon.

Believed to be a new species in the genus Cyclosa, the arachnid crafts the larger spider from leaves, debris and dead insects. Though Cyclosa includes other sculpting arachnids, this is the first one observed to build a replica with multiple, spidery legs.

Scientists suspect the fake spiders serve as decoys, part of a defense mechanism meant to confuse or distract predators. “It seems like a really well evolved and very specialized behavior,” said Phil Torres, who described the find in a blog entry written for Rainforest Expeditions. Torres, a biologist and science educator, divides his time between Southern California and Peru, where he’s involved in research and education projects.

“Considering that spiders can already make really impressive geometric designs with their webs, it’s no surprise that they can take that leap to make an impressive design with debris and other things,” he said.

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For nearly half a decade now, filmmaker John Downer has been pioneering the use of tiny cameras to capture photographs and videos from a bird’s-eye view — literally. He attaches extremely small and light HD cameras to the backs of birds in order to capture incredible point-of-view imagery of the animals going about their day-to-day lives.

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Israeli scientists have uncovered messages transmitted underground – not by enemy agents, but by garden pea plants.

The Ben-Gurion University team discovered that plants can transmit distress signals to each other through their roots. An injured plant “communicates” to a healthy one, which in turn relays the signal to neighboring plants, possibly enhancing the other plants’ ability to deal with stress in the future, according to the study, recently published in the periodical PLoS (Public Library of Science One ).

The researchers, headed by plant biologist Ariel Novoplansky of the Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology, exposed five garden pea plants to drought conditions. They found that the stressed plant closes its leaves to prevent water loss. Meanwhile its roots release signals that caused neighboring plants, which were not exposed to drought conditions, to react as if they had been. The study, “Rumor Has It …: Relay Communication of Stress Cues in Plants,” shows the unstressed plants transmitted the information on to other healthy plants.

Preliminary results indicate that plants that receive the distress signals will survive better if exposed to drought at a later stage in their life.

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Soon to be car parts? <i>(Image: Jim Zuckerman/Corbis)</i>

THE hottest new material in town is light, strong and conducts electricity. What’s more, it’s been around a long, long time.

Nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), which is produced by processing wood pulp, is being hailed as the latest wonder material. Japan-based Pioneer Electronics is applying it to the next generation of flexible electronic displays. IBM is using it to create components for computers. Even the US army is getting in on the act, using it to make lightweight body armour and ballistic glass.

To ramp up production, the US opened its first NCC factory in Madison, Wisconsin, on 26 July, marking the rise of what the US National Science Foundation predicts will become a $600 billion industry by 2020.

So why all the fuss? Well, not only is NCC transparent but it is made from a tightly packed array of needle-like crystals which have a strength-to-weight ratio that is eight times better than stainless steel. Even better, it’s incredibly cheap.

“It is the natural, renewable version of a carbon nanotube at a fraction of the price,” says Jeff Youngblood of Purdue University’s NanoForestry Institute in West Lafayette, Indiana.

The $1.7 million factory, which is owned by the US Forest Service, will produce two types of NCC: crystals and fibrils.

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Zombie Fungus

The parasitic Cordyceps fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) employs mind control in order to reproduce. It drives its spores into an ant’s trachea and feeds off the soft tissue and non-vital organs, and when the fungus is ready to reproduce, it secretes chemicals into the ant’s brain, manipulating the insect into climbing atop a plant. The ant uses its mandibles to attach itself in a so-called “death grip”—which has been found on leaf fossils dating back 48 million years—and the fungus then devours the ant’s brain and sprouts a mushroom in its head. Once it matures a month later, it releases its spores into the environment to begin the cycle again. The Cordyceps can’t completely decimate an ant colony because it’s actually parasitized by another fungus, limiting its ability to reproduce and allowing the Cordyceps and the ants to co-exist. There are four fungus species known to do this, all native to Brazil’s Atlantic rain forest, and it’s possible that each species is adapted to attack its own species of insect. It’s almost the stuff of sci-fi.

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