While the largest of animals impress us with their size and bulk, some of the most amazing are those you could hold in the palm of your hand.  Here are three worth appreciating a little more.

  1. Frog hopping:  Grad student Henry Astley at Brown University is showing us that those infamous frog dissections in school are not for naught.  Actually, his experiments with professor Thomas Roberts thankfully leave the poor creatures alive and well, as they analyze their amazing ability to hop.  A student of biomechanics at Brown, Astley was interested how frogs get more mileage than their muscles allow, reported PhysOrg.  He filmed them in super slo-mo and found that as they crouch, ready to hop, the leg muscles transfer elastic energy into the tendons, loading them like a spring.  A video clip shows how the little amphibians are superbly engineered hopping machines.
  2. Butterfly scratching:  Imagine being able to smell with your feet.  (Actually, some human feet smell, but that’s a different connotation.)  Butterflies drum and scratch leaves to identify their host plants for egg-laying.  They have special sensors on their feet that, along with their tasting proboscis, distance-smelling antennae, and superb eyesight, allow them to find the plants their caterpillars will need to eat.  PhysOrg reported on this, but there is much more information with visuals on the new documentary Metamorphosis – a masterwork on Blu-Ray or DVD (see trailer and ordering information on MetamorphosisTheFilm.com).
  3. Shrimp webbing:  Speaking of feet, shrimp have a similar ability to spiders, the ability to build silk webbing material – but they do it with their feet!  The BBC News story included a short clip of the “spinnerets” on the shrimp’s legs used to extrude a sticky material the animal uses for building its house from surrounding pebbles and sand grains.  Moreover, this material, described in the article as “nature’s way of engineering a highly functional material,” is salt-water resistant.  Little is known about its properties, but one of the Oxford researchers expects the material to be strong and stretchy, like that of spider webs.

Only the last article mentioned evolution, and that just quickly in passing.  The reader is told that “the thread has evolved to be spun underwater and to stay underwater throughout its life, so it will have a few tricks to be able to perform in marine [sic] environment.”  Finding sense in that statement is left as an exercise.  The focus of the article was actually more on revealing biological secrets for human benefit and inspiration.  “It’s not that we want to copy things from nature,” one of the Oxford zoologists said.  “It’s more that we want to be inspired by nature to see how she does the job.”….

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