Tag Archives: Biology

How do insects walk on water?

A new study illuminates this shadowy question. First, the video:

And now, a press note from the American Chemical Society:

Water striders’ ability to walk and jump on the surfaces of ponds and lakes has long amazed curious observers — and inspired robot designers who want to mimic the bugs’ talent. Now, scientists have measured for the first time key parameters that allow them to walk on water — by studying their leg shadows. The findings, reported in the ACS journal Langmuir, could contribute to designs for water-skimming robots.

More than 2,000 years ago, Greek scientist Archimedes explained flotation, stating that the upward, floating force on an object in water equals the weight (or downward force) of the water displaced. The principle has informed the building of ships, submarines and other aquatic vehicles. But for tiny water striders, water isn’t displaced. It is expelled by the insect’s hairy legs. The updated Archimedes principle predicts that the weight of the expelled water should equal the floating force. But confirming this prediction experimentally is a challenge. Because water striders are so light, they are almost impossible to weigh using conventional techniques. So Yu Tian and colleagues used an unconventional method — analyzing the shadows cast by the insects’ legs.

The researchers placed a white sheet of paper at the bottom of a lab aquarium housing water striders and installed a light source above the water. The insects’ stick-straight legs cast shadows that were rounded, representing the curvature of the water and the expelled water volume from which the floating force and weight can be calculated, the researchers say. Also, from these measurements, the striders’ slightest shifts in weight and body angle could be detected for the first time.

The authors acknowledge funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

The abstract from the original publication:

Forces acted on legs of water-walking arthropods with weights in dynes are of great interest for entomologist, physicists, and engineers. While their floating mechanism has been recognized, the in vivo leg forces stationary have not yet been simultaneously achieved. In this study, their elegant bright-edged leg shadows are used to make the tiny forces visible and measurable based on the updated Archimedes’ principle. The force was approximately proportional to the shadow area with a resolution from nanonewton to piconewton/pixel. The sum of leg forces agreed well with the body weight measured with an accurate electronic balance, which verified updated Archimedes’ principle at the arthropod level. The slight changes of vertical body weight focus position and the body pitch angle have also been revealed for the first time. The visualization of tiny force by shadow is cost-effective and very sensitive and could be used in many other applications.

Citation: Yelong Zheng, Hongyu Lu, Wei Yin, Dashuai Tao, Lichun Shi, and Yu Tian. 2016. Elegant Shadow Making Tiny Force Visible for Water-Walking Arthropods and Updated Archimedes’ Principle. Langmuir 2016 32 (41), 10522-10528. DOI: 10.1021/acs.langmuir.6b02922

Books On Fossils and Evolution

Over the last several months, a lot of great books on fossils and evolution (as in paleontology) have come out. I’ve selected the best for your consideration. These are great gifts for your favorite science-loving nephew, life science teaching cousin, or local school library. Actually, you might like some of these yourself.

grandmother_fishLet’s start off with a kid’s book: Grandmother Fish: a child’s first book of Evolution by Jonathan Tweet.

From the blurb:

Grandmother Fish is the first book to teach evolution to preschoolers. While listening to the story, the child mimics the motions and sounds of our ancestors, such as wiggling like a fish or hooting like an ape. Like magic, evolution becomes fun, accessible, and personal. Grandmother Fish will be a full-size (10 x 8), full-color, 32-page, hardback book full of appealing animal illustrations, perfect for your bookshelf. US publishers consider evolution to be too “hot” a topic for children, but with your help we can make this book happen ourselves.

I reviewed the book here before it first came out. This was a kickstarter project, and it may be currently unavailable commercially, but if you click through to the kickstarter project you can probably get a copy of it.

Donald+Prothero+Story+of+Life+in+25+FossilsThe most recent book to come across my desk is Don Prothero’s The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution. I’ve got a review of Prothero’s book in my draft file, so look for that post coming out over the next few days.

One might ask, “how do you choose 25 fossils, among so many choices, to represent evolution?” Well, Don cheated a little by mentioning more than 25 fossils. Also, you really can’t do this. Don selected fossils using several criteria, but one basis for his choice was the availability of rich historical information about a fossil’s discovery, interpretation, and effect on our thinking about evolution. And, he covers all of that.

Don is one of those rare authors who is both an expert scientist and a great writer, with a proven ability to explain things in a way that is not watered down yet totally accessible.

Here’s a selection of the many other books written by Prothero:

EvolutionTheWholeStoryParker41N2zRnkbuL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Evolution: The Whole Story is an astonishing book that needs to be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in evolution. The work is edied by Steve Parker, but authored by nearly a dozen experts in various subfields of fossils and evolution, so it is authoritative and scholarly. At the same time, it is very accessible and enjoyable. This is not a book you read from cover to cover, though you could. Feel free to skip around, and you;ll find yourself looking stuff up all the time.

The book is divided into major sections, and each section has a series of short pieces on this or that fossil, group of fossils, type of life system, method for studying fossils, etc. There is a running sidebar on the bottom of many pages giving “key events” in evolutionary history of the group of life forms under consideration The book is VERY richly illustrated, with detailed keys to the illustrations. Many of the illustrations are broken down into “focal points” that expand significantly on the illustrations’ details. There are countless additional inserts with more information. The book itself is beautiful, intriguingly organized, and it is full of … well, everything. The book is very well indexed and sourced, and has helpful, up to date, phylogenies and chronological graphics.

TheBiologyBookGeraldThe Biology Book: From the Origin of Life to Epigenetics, 250 Milestones in the History of Biology (Sterling Milestones) by Michael Gerald and Gloria Gerald is a compendium of biological topics and key moments in the history of biological science, organized in a sort of chronological framework. Major groups (the insects, the amphibians), major ideas (Pliny’s Natural History, Ongogeny and Phylogeny), key physiological and developmental concepts (meiosis, mitosis, many topics in endocrinology), key fossils (like the Coelocanth) and so on are discussed, very nicely illustrated. This is almost like having a gazillian short articles from Natural History Magazine (or similar) all in one book. There are 250 biological “milestones” in all. The charming part of the book is that a milestone can be an evolutionary event, an extinction episode, the emergence of a great idea, or a particular discover. And, as noted, these are ordered across time, as well as one can, from the beginning of life to a selection of the most recent discovery. The book effectively combines history of biology (and related sciences) and the biological history itself.

lifes_gretest_secret_dna_cobb511J4iZIbrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by the well respected scientist and historian Matthew Cobb is a carefully and clearly written history of the discovery of the nature of DNA, covering a lot more than, and since, Watson and Crick. It is extremely well sourced, indexed, and supported, and very readable.

This is the detailed and authoritative work on all the elements that came together to understand the genetic code. Don’t talk about the discovery and understanding of DNA any more until you’ve read this book. From the publisher:

Life’s Greatest Secret mixes remarkable insights, theoretical dead-ends, and ingenious experiments with the swift pace of a thriller. From New York to Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Cambridge, England, and London to Moscow, the greatest discovery of twentieth-century biology was truly a global feat. Biologist and historian of science Matthew Cobb gives the full and rich account of the cooperation and competition between the eccentric characters—mathematicians, physicists, information theorists, and biologists—who contributed to this revolutionary new science. And, while every new discovery was a leap forward for science, Cobb shows how every new answer inevitably led to new questions that were at least as difficult to answer: just ask anyone who had hoped that the successful completion of the Human Genome Project was going to truly yield the book of life, or that a better understanding of epigenetics or “junk DNA” was going to be the final piece of the puzzle. But the setbacks and unexpected discoveries are what make the science exciting, and it is Matthew Cobb’s telling that makes them worth reading. This is a riveting story of humans exploring what it is that makes us human and how the world works, and it is essential reading for anyone who’d like to explore those questions for themselves.

EldridgeEvolutionExtinctionExtinction and Evolution: What Fossils Reveal About the History of Life is a an updated version of a classic book about evolution and extinction written by one of the scientists who developed our modern way of thinking about evolution and extinction (especially the extinction part).

Eldredge’s groundbreaking work is now accepted as the definitive statement of how life as we know it evolved on Earth. This book chronicles how Eldredge made his discoveries and traces the history of life through the lenses of paleontology, geology, ecology, anthropology, biology, genetics, zoology, mammalogy, herpetology, entomology and botany. While rigorously accurate, the text is accessible, engaging and free of jargon.

Honorable Mentions: Older books that are great and may now be avaialable for much reduced prices.

I really liked The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy as an expose of a particular time period and major event in geological history. Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planet by Prothero is a classic, again, looking at a fairly narrowly defined moment in prehistory. You can get it used for about five bucks.

The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution by Dean Falk is a great book focusing on one key human fossil. This is a personal story as well as a scientific one. Again, available used for a song.

Have you read Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body yet? I’m sure you’ve heard about it. It is still a great read, and you can get it used cheap.

The only book I would recommend that uses the “paleolithic” to advise you on diet and exercise is The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living.

The best of the best in plant biology, conservation, photography, and evolution

I have about ten favorite species of tree, and one of them is the corotú. Why? Because of one of the most interesting plant-animal interaction stories of recent times. The story, complete with extinct elephant-like creatures and a real Sherlock Holmes science theme can be read, along with some great images, at A Neotropical Savanna: The Corotú and the Gomphothere.
Continue reading The best of the best in plant biology, conservation, photography, and evolution

Pagel on Darwin

ResearchBlogging.orgMark Pagel, evolutionary theorist extraordinaire, has published an Insight piece in Nature on Natural selection 150 years on. Pagel, well known for myriad projects in natural selecition theory and adaptation, and for developing with Harvey the widely used statistical phylogenetic method (and for being a reader of my thesis) wishes Charles Darwin a happy 200th birthday, and assesses this question:

How has Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection fared over the last 150 years, and what needs to be done to bring this theoretical approach to bear as we increasingly examine complex systems, including human society?
Continue reading Pagel on Darwin

Elephants and Horses

In 1833, Darwin spent a fair amount of time on the East Coast of South America, including in the Pampas, where he had access to abundant fossil material. Here I’d like to examine his writings about some of the megafauna, including Toxodon, Mastodon, and horses, and his further considerations of biogeography and evolution.

Continue reading Elephants and Horses

Rheas and the Birth of Evolutionary Theory

Everyone knows about Darwin’s Finches, of the Galapagos Islands. But of course, Darwin made observations of birds throughout his travels on The Beagle. Here, I present a number of passages from The Voyage that include some of these observations.

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Fossil Quadrupeds

Charles Darwin wrote a book called Geological Observations on South America. Since Fitzroy needed to carry out intensive and extensive coastal mapping in South America, and Darwin was, at heart, a geologist more than anything else (at least during the Beagle’s voyage), this meant that Darwin would become the world’s expert on South American geology. Much of The Voyage is about his expeditions and observations. Part of this, of course, was figuring out the paleontology of the region.
Continue reading Fossil Quadrupeds