Here are ten recent discoveries about plants and animals that are surprising and inspiring.  Some of them may lead to technologies that can improve our own lives.

Fish-o-pus:  Slinking through Indonesian waters is a master of impersonation: an octopus that can elude predators by imitating a fish.  But that’s just part of the story.  Scientists have now found a fish that imitates the octopus that imitates the fish!  Story on Science News.  The jawfish apparently hangs around with the mimic octopus to share in its protective strategy.

Mind meld with apes:  German scientists studied the four anthropoid apes, chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans, Science Daily said, and found that some (but not all) appeared to be able to calculate risks before acting.  Their experiment involved choices between small banana pieces in reliable spots, and larger banana pieces hidden behind variable locations.  The gorillas didn’t do so well.  It’s not clear whether readers will be as impressed with this as the researchers were, considering that birds seem to do even better at these kinds of brain teasers.  Last month, Live Science reported  that pigeon brains are on par with primates.

Brazilian worm-eating plant:  A new kind of carnivorous plant has been found in the Cerrado of Brazil, a unique tropical biodiversity hotspot.  Reported in PNAS (January 9, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1114199109), the plant Philcoxia apparently uses sticky underground leaves to trap and eat roundworms.  PhysOrg has a picture and summary of the predatory plant.

Flower power:  PhysOrg featured a researcher at Kansas State that is trying to untangle sunflower genetics.  Different species living in different climates have apparently become successful through gene duplications, hybridization and mobile genetic elements – pieces of genetic code that can relocate and insert themselves in different parts of the genome.  Although Mark Ungerer is couching his explanations in evolutionary terms, the article seems to indicate a kind of controlled adaptability that has occurred recently.  It seems premature to credit unguided processes with success at adapting to climates as different as Texas and Canada, considering Ungerer’s humble admission, “Although virtually all plants and animals have these types of sequences in their genomes, we still know very little about what phenomena cause them to amplify and make extra copies of themselves.”

Rhinoceros foot puzzle:  The Royal Veterinary College is playing footsie with rhinos to see how their “stumpy little feet” can support so much weight.  Their weight-bearing strategy is apparently different from that of elephants.  According to the BBC News article, Dr. John Hutchinson has another reason for investigating this unknown marvel: “From understanding the feet of rhinos, as an example of a big land mammal, we could draw inspiration and understand how to build devices that can handle heavy loads and carry them around while moving.”….

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