A young beetle’s best defense? A poop shield.
A weekly roundup of the best in science journalism, doodled.
When you’ve got a highly mobile anus, you build a poop shield on your back with it. That’s just what you do.
“It’s hard to deny the effectiveness of a poo stick in warding off attackers.” There’s no way I could provide a description of Wired’s “Absurd Creature of the Week” that could possibly top—or in any necessary way contribute to—science writer Matt Simon’s brief treatise on the fascinating tortoise beetle. These insects build poop swords to protect themselves during their larval stage.
In addition to his photo captions (above), favorite quotes from Simon’s story include:
Using a highly elongated and mobile anus, they build a tower of poo on a special structure on their backs. A tower of poo!
So, the shit shields. They’re all built on top of a structure called the anal fork that the larva can manipulate to reach any part of its body.
When threatened, even by something as simple as a scientist’s shadow passing over them, the larvae form up into a circle, pointing their butts and shields outward, as their mother charges around the perimeter.
Nature is the coolest. Keep reading.
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Foot-long, serrated-steak-knife teeth are worth waiting for.
Two of my favorite visual-science gals, Flora Lichtman and Sharon Shattuck, take us behind the scenes at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This is where paleontologist Jack Tseng, with a real saber-tooth cat skull in hand, acts out his theory for how these predators of yore used their mouth weapons to attack prey.
Tseng recently coauthored a study on how fast these teeth grew—slower than a modern lion’s canines but faster than human fingernails grow per month. Baby sabers probably chilled with mom and dad until they were three, when their knife teeth were ready to get into the murdering-herbivores game.
Filled with paper puppets, the video below contains the type of explanatory gem these women are known for, matched with great narration. This is my cup of visual-science-news tea.
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Maybe we’ll have seahorses to thank when more flexible robots take over the world.
While on vacation last week, I sat and watched some branches flexing in the breeze, and it really blew my mind. Branches are so strong that they’re often able to hold their own in heavy winds but also shift and bend in the breeze. NATURE IS THE COOLEST.
There are scientists who agree with me, who devote their lives to researching the physics of how nature works in order to make better materials and products. The field of study is called biomimicry. In a recent instance, a group of mechanical engineers from Clemson University focused on seahorse tails. These tiny fish are odd men out in tail-land, as most tails in nature are cylindrical (monkeys, dolphins, etc.) The ones attached to seahorses, however, have a square-prism shape, better for holding onto seagrass and coral in currents.
Comprised of skeletal plates attached to the spine with strong, flexible connective tissue, the tails are also really resilient. They return quickly to their original shape after bending and twisting to grasp, or after being crushed.
The square plates have a sliding groove joint that helps the tails bounce back to their original form quickly. This helps seahorses recover from scraps with predators that get a hold of their tails, but it’s also good for their spines—too much flexibility might cause the seahorse to break its back when grasping in rough waters. The researchers, who published their results in Science last week, thought these square-shaped tails could also have exciting implications for robotics.
"Human engineers tend to build things that are stiff so they can be controlled easily," says coauthor Ross Hatton, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University. "But nature makes things just strong enough not to break, and then flexible enough to do a wide range of tasks.” Being strong but flexible is a desirable characteristic for any creature—and it just might help inspire the next generation of robotics.
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#SharkWeek includes actual science and shark facts this year.
Scientists agree that Shark Week hit rock bottom a couple of years ago with a Megalodon special that appeared to be a documentary—unless that is, you read the three-second disclaimer that it was fake at the outset of the show. Most people didn’t. Shark ecologist David Shiffman told NPR that “Shark Week two years ago did not appreciate it when I recommended an eight-year-old neighbor fact-check scripts for them. Because that eight-year-old knew more about sharks than whoever was writing those scripts…”
The cacophony of outraged researchers calling on the network to instill a touch of accuracy back into its programming made its mark: Discovery Channel’s new president announced last week that this year, shows will focus on shark research. It’s definitely progress, but stay tuned to Shiffman, @whysharksmatter, on Twitter to make sure you’re not being duped by fear mongering faintly disguised as fact.
This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.
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