Tripedal to the Metal
That’s some loco motion, huh? Found this neat little GIF showing how an ant’s legs move at a full gallop. While calmly strolling though the picnic grounds, ants have five of their six legs at a time in contact with the ground. But when it’s time to put the (tiny) pedal to the metal, they change their gait to this alternating tripod motion.
This pattern isn’t controlled by the insect’s brain, but rather by bundles of neurons in the leg called central pattern generators. While moving at such a clip, it just so happens that three legs is the minimum number it needs on the ground at a time to balance its rigid exoskeleton without toppling over.
Is that part of the reason that insects have six legs and not another number like four or eight? Or did the gait evolve to match the hardware? My guess is the latter, but I am not sure. What say you, insect folks?
(GIF via NC State University)
The Firefly Time-Lapse
Wow. This one is simply stunning. A wonderful new time-lapse from Vincent Brady, with music from Brandon McCoy, captures fireflies like Earthbound shooting stars against the backdrop of the night sky that we usually see in videos like these. Using long exposures and stacked images, this time-lapse operates on two scales: Terrestrial and astronomical.
Ahhh, good ol’ Photina pyralis, those harbingers of warmer days, those bearers of chemical candlelight, those blinking lovers calling out for a mate on long summer nights.
Photina creates its light using a process called chemiluminescence, mediated by an enzyme called luciferase. The luciferase protein, a name which stirs images of fiery spirits, grabs on to its chemical target, a molecule called luciferin, sitting ready, but dark, in the active site of the protein, like an unlit firework. Luciferase then reaches for a molecule of ATP, every living cell’s energy source, luminescent or not, capturing its chemical energy like a sprinkling of gunpowder on a fuse. It breaks apart that ATP into AMP and pyrophosphate, and with the release of that fiery-sounding byproduct, the invocation of fire begins.
Now oxygen gas, the very fuel fire needs to burn, rips away the AMP and sits down in its place. The fuse is burnt, the fire has food, and it’s time to ignite. Exhaling carbon dioxide, the luciferin molecule is excited into oxyluciferin, its atoms charged full via oxidation. Almost instantly, it relaxes back to a resting state, shooting out a photon like a quantum bullet.
And so it happens, millions of times a minute, in invisible pyralis posteriors that only betray their location in fleeting flashes of chemistry as they streak across the twilight sky.
Think about that as you watch this, speakers up, full screen.
Artist Hubert Duprat has collaborated with caddisfly larvae by placing them in an environment full of gold and jewels. The larvae then use these materials to make jewel-encrusted casings.
More info: http://is.gd/rDys2E
Source: Cabinet magazine via I fucking love science
Like a metamorphamillionaire.
Goniurellia tridens is the “come at me bro” of fruit flies, carrying two menacing ant shapes as a defensive display.
If you missed it last night, check out these amazingly-disguised moths and butterflies that I saw on a tour of UF’s Lepidoptera collection last weekend. Just when I think I’ve found the coolest decoy coloring, I see something like this … what else ya got, nature?
(photo by Peter Roosenschoon, which is a very cool name)
In the Florida Museum of Natural History's butterfly and moth collection, every cabinet contains a world of wonder, and each drawer holds a beautiful story. I was lucky enough to discover a few this weekend.
I was in Gainesville, Florida over the past few days attending the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting, which was great in its own right. While there on the University of Florida campus, I was lucky enough to be invited on a behind-the-scenes tour of their legendary Lepidoptera collection with curator Andy Warren, insect explorer Phil Torres, and photographer-of-tiny-things Jeff Cremer.
Phil and Jeff brought along a microscope macro lens, and we shot lots of photos of wing scales with it. If they post those up, I’ll be sure to let you know. Here’s a little tour of my favorite finds (from top):
- I’ve featured the folded dead leaf illusion moth Uropiya meticulodina before, but seeing it in person was stunning. It has evolved a camouflage color scheme involving shadows, perspective and mimicking not only another species, but another domain of life. Breathtaking example of the power of evolution.
- Macrocilix maia is another example of intricate pattern evolution that you’ve seen on IOTBS before, displaying a pattern that looks like two flies feeding on bird poop, down to red eyes, extended legs, and a glint of light off the back. This moth, and the leaf-mimic above, create for me an existential crisis of science: I understand that they evolved by the power of natural selection, but when I try to imagine the sequence of events that made them what they are today, my brain sort of falls apart.
- We got to see a century-old box of British butterflies, each example of species differing by perhaps a single spot, meticulously mounted with truly imperial organization.
- Those strings of cocoons are an example of cultural convergent evolution. They are dance rattles, worn around the ankles, each one a dried cocoon filled with a pebble. These ceremonial decorations were independently devised by cultures in Africa and the Americas, an ocean apart!
- No string of letters and words can do justice to the iridescent wonder that is the Madagascar sunset moth. The greens, blues and oranges, when viewed up close, explode into pixelated scales of purple and yellow, dotted with a rainbow of fluorescents. You neeeeeed to head over to Smarter Every Day and watch Destin’s episode about butterfly scales to appreciate this flying rainbow.
- Continents apart, two different species of butterfly (among many more) evolved the ability to mimic dead leaves. Dead decomposing leaves. They even lose patches of tissue in their wings, leaving holes just like a real dead leaf has!
One hour in there and it was obvious why people like Vladimir Nabokov fell in love with butterflies and moths. Any longer than that and I might never have made it out.
What happens when you pour 1200F molten aluminum into an anthill? (by seidbords32)
I have to say my immediate response was to feel bad for the ants even though I have killed every one I ever found in my home.
It just seemed especially unfair to wipe out an entire colony all at once. but then I remembered E.O. Wilson’s remark that “If ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week” and thought ok, fuck it, pour some molten aluminum in there and let’s see what’s going on. What’s going on is quite amazing. You can skip forward quite a bit if you’re so inclined: it’s worth it.
Ant architecture is amazing. Ventilation shafts, flood control, groundwater access, nursery and farming annexes. Not bad for something with only 250,000 neurons in its brain.
Fraggles and Doozers still have ‘em beat, though.
After you finish being amazed by their subterranean skill, check out this video about leafcutter ants, the invention of farming and coevolution.
Maybe I should do a video about ants.
Faux Feces Species
Meet Macrocilix maia, the moth whose patterning mimics two flies feeding on bird poop. As Alex WIld notes at MYRMECOS, there are plenty of bugs that mimic poop itself, or flies, but nothing so elaborate as this scene.
Think it beats this incredible dead leaf moth, complete with depth perception illusion?
Finally, check out this video on moths vs. butterflies from The Brain Scoop.
Leafcutter Ants: Colonial Farmers and Coevolution
Join UT-Austin biologist Ulrich Mueller as he observes leafcutter ants in the field. It’s a fascinating look at unintelligent individuals developing advanced behaviors when they operate as a socially intelligent colony. Each ant only makes simple decisions, but the colony operates like a living superbrain.
These little bugs evolved farming tens of millions of years before humans did, burying plant material deep in their expansive subterranean antropolis and feeding off of the nutrient-rich fungus that grows on it. This relationship is known as mutualism, with the ants cultivating the fungus in return for a food source. These two organisms have co-evolved, intricately benefiting each other’s survival without ever communicating.
Their tunnels can stretch tens of meters down from the surface, and dozens outward, their complex architecture providing ventilation, dozens of farming chambers, and access to deep groundwater.
And if you’re Destin from Smarter Every Day, you can even get them to carry a sign.