Posts Tagged ‘Insects’

Zebra’s Stripes, Butterfly’s Wings: How Do Biological Patterns Emerge?

June 23, 2008

A zebra’s stripes, a seashell’s spirals, a butterfly’s wings: these are all examples of patterns in nature. The formation of patterns is a puzzle for mathematicians and biologists alike. How does the delicate design of a butterfly’s wings come from a single fertilized egg? How does pattern emerge out of no pattern?

Using computer models and live cells, researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered a specific pattern that can direct cell movement and may help us understand how metastatic cancer cells move.

“Pattern formation is a classic problem in embryology,” says Denise Montell, Ph.D., a professor of biological chemistry at Hopkins. “At some point, cells in an embryo must separate into those that will become heart cells, liver cells, blood cells and so on. Although this has been studied for years, there is still a lot we don’t understand.”

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Bee Species Outnumber Mammals And Birds Combined

June 18, 2008

Scientists have discovered that there are more bee species than previously thought. In the first global accounting of bee species in over a hundred years, John S. Ascher, a research scientist in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, compiled online species pages and distribution maps for more than 19,200 described bee species, showcasing the diversity of these essential pollinators. This new species inventory documents 2,000 more described, valid species than estimated by Charles Michener in the first edition of his definitive The Bees of the World published eight years ago.

“The bee taxonomic community came together and completed the first global checklist of bee names since 1896,” says Ascher. “Most people know of honey bees and a few bumble bees, but we have documented that there are actually more species of bees than of birds and mammals put together.”

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Altruism In Social Insects Is A Family Affair

June 16, 2008

The contentious debate about why insects evolved to put the interests of the colony over the individual has been reignited by new research from the University of Leeds, showing that they do so to increase the chances that their genes will be passed on.

A team led by Dr Bill Hughes of the University’s Faculty of Biological Sciences studied ‘kin selection’ — the theory that an animal may pass on its genes by helping relatives to reproduce, because they share common genes, rather than by reproducing itself.

The concept of ‘kin selection’ was developed in 1964 by the evolutionary biologist Bill Hamilton, first proposed by Charles Darwin to explain, for example, why sterile workers evolved in social insect groups and why a honeybee would sacrifice its life to defend the colony. Charles Darwin recognized that such altruistic behaviour in highly social insect groups was at odds with his theory of natural selection, and Bill Hamilton’s theory of kin selection showed that this behaviour can evolve because it still fulfills the drive to pass on genes – but through relatives instead.

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Ever clever macacques learn to fish

June 13, 2008

From the Associated Press comes a fascinating story about a new behavior observed in long-tailed macaque monkeys. They fish.

Reporting out of Bangkok, Thailand, the AP says that macaques had been known to collect crabs and insects, but that fishing was new. True, the silver-haired primates weren’t exactly using rods and reels, but four times over the past eight years macaques have been seen scooping up fish with their agile hands along rivers in Indonesia.

News of this behavior comes from researchers with The Nature Conservancy and the Great Ape Trust. The AP notes:

“It’s exciting that after such a long time you see new behavior,” said Erik Meijaard, one of the authors of a study on fishing macaques that appeared in last month’s International Journal of Primatology. “It’s an indication of how little we know about the species.”

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Memory In Honeybees: What The Right And Left Antenna Tell The Left And Right Brain

June 8, 2008

It is widely known that the right and left hemispheres of the brain perform different tasks. Lesions to the left hemisphere typically bring impairments in language production and comprehension, while lesions to the right hemisphere give rise to deficits in the visual-spatial perception, such as the inability to recognize familiar faces.

In the last few years, we have become used to the idea that functional asymmetry between the left and right sides of the nervous system is not unique to humans: fishes, amphibians, birds and mammals have functional and anatomical asymmetries.

So, the idea that all vertebrate species, even non-human ones without any linguistic skills, have an asymmetric brain seems to be finally accepted. Now, this process of extension among species is going on and brain lateralization has been extended beyond the class Vertebrata. Insects, with their nervous system so different from that of vertebrates, are also “lateralized”, as shown in a paper published in PLoS ONE by Lesley J. Rogers of the Centre for Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour, University of New England (Australia), and Giorgio Vallortigara, of the Centre for Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento (Italy).

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Scientists Announce Top 10 New Species In Last Year

May 28, 2008

The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and an international committee of taxonomists — scientists responsible for species exploration and classification — has just announced the top 10 new species described in 2007.

On the list are an ornate sleeper ray, with a name that sucks: Electrolux; a 75-million-year-old giant duck-billed dinosaur; a shocking pink millipede; a rare, off-the-shelf frog; one of the most venomous snakes in the world; a fruit bat; a mushroom; a jellyfish named after its victim; a life-imitates-art “Dim” rhinoceros beetle; and the “Michelin Man” plant.

The taxonomists are also issuing a SOS — State of Observed Species report card on human knowledge of Earth’s species. In it, they report that 16,969 species new to science were discovered and described in 2006. The SOS report was compiled by ASU’s International Institute for Species Exploration in partnership with the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the International Plant Names Index, and Thompson Scientific, publisher of Zoological Record.

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Honey Bee Losses Continue To Rise In U.S.

May 26, 2008

Colony Collapse Disorder, diseases, parasitic mites and other stressors continue to take a devastating toll on U.S. honey bee populations, but Pennsylvania beekeepers on average fared better than their counterparts nationally during this past winter, according to agriculture experts in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

A recent survey by the Apiary Inspectors of America found that losses nationwide topped 36 percent of managed hives between September 2007 and March 2008, compared to a 31 percent loss during the same period a year earlier.

Pennsylvania fared better, with losses of about 26 percent, compared to nearly 48 percent the previous year. “About 70 percent of the state’s losses this year were not related to Colony Collapse Disorder,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, acting state apiarist for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and a Penn State senior extension associate in entomology.

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Success By Learning: Smallest Predator Recognizes Prey By Its Shape

May 22, 2008

The Etruscan shrew (Suncus etruscus) is one of the world’s smallest mammals. It is about four centimetres long and weighs merely two grams. Being a nocturnal animal, it hunts predominantly with its sense of touch. Professor Michael Brecht (Bernstein Center for Computional Neuroscience, Berlin) now reported on the particularities of its hunting behaviour at the international conference “Development and function of somatosensation and pain” at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch, Germany. “As quick as a flash, the Etruscan shrew scans its prey and adapts, when necessary, its hunting strategy,” explained Brecht in his talk. “Thus, no prey escapes.”

The smaller an animal is, the greater is its loss of warmth over its surface. To avoid starvation, the Etruscan shrew has to constantly compensate for this life-threatening energy loss. Thus, it consumes twice its weight every day and feeds on crickets, cockroaches, and spiders. Since the prey are nearly as big as their predator, the shrew has to attack fast and well directed.

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The 5 Most Horrifying Bugs in the World

May 22, 2008

There are about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 insects on earth at any given moment. Seriously, that’s a real number. For every one of us, there are 1.5 billion bugs.

But some of them are so horrifying, just one is too many. Here are five you want to avoid at all costs.

#5. Japanese Giant Hornet (vespa mandarinia japonica)

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Diamond-Like Crystals Discovered In Brazilian Beetle Solve Issue For Future Optical Computers

May 21, 2008

Researchers have been unable to build an ideal “photonic crystal” to manipulate visible light, impeding the dream of ultrafast optical computers. But now, University of Utah chemists have discovered that nature already has designed photonic crystals with the ideal, diamond-like structure: They are found in the shimmering, iridescent green scales of a beetle from Brazil.

“It appears that a simple creature like a beetle provides us with one of the technologically most sought-after structures for the next generation of computing,” says study leader Michael Bartl, an assistant professor of chemistry and adjunct assistant professor of physics at the University of Utah. “Nature has simple ways of making structures and materials that are still unobtainable with our million-dollar instruments and engineering strategies.”

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Kangaroos Threaten One Of Australia’s Last Remaining Original Grasslands, And Endangered Animals

May 21, 2008

Australian Department of Defence is currently culling hundreds of kangaroos on the outskirts of the capital Canberra that have produced heated discussions and hit international headlines. Australia’s iconic animal has multiplied so much over recent years that Canberra now has three times as many kangaroos as inhabitants. The situation is particularly critical at two enclosed military sites on the outskirts of the city, which form an ideal refuge for the eastern grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus).

The grasslands there are now completely overgrazed – with dramatic consequences for other species. These areas are some of the few natural grasslands in Australia, making them one of the remaining reserves for endangered animal species, like the golden sun moth (Synemon plana) and the grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla), one of the world’s rarest lizards. Around 400 of nearly 600 kangaroos at a 200-hectare military site will be killed during the next days with lethal injections after the government ruled out a resettlement programme as too expensive. Resettlement would only relocate the problem.

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Multiple New Species Of Fruit Flies With Overlapping Niches Discovered

May 20, 2008

Evidence of physically similar species hidden within plant tissues suggest that diversity of neotropical herbivorous insects may not simply be a function of plant architecture, but may also reflect the great age and area of the neotropics.

In an article published in Science, Cornell College biology professor Marty Condon and coauthors turn current thought on plant-feeding insect diversity on its head. The study used an examination of fruit fly diversity in Latin America to conclude that typical niche diversity tracking can lead to undercounting of species. DNA analysis resulted in the discovery of multiple new species of fruit flies with overlapping niches.

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Tiny fish cleans abandoned pools at foreclosed houses

May 12, 2008

While lawmakers in Washington struggle to solve the nation’s foreclosure crisis, officials here are using a small fish to clean up some of the mess.

The Gambusia affinis is commonly known as the “mosquito fish” because of its healthy appetite for the larvae of the irritating and disease-spreading insects. Lately, the fish is being pressed into service in California, Arizona, Florida and other areas struggling with a soaring number of foreclosures.

The problem: swimming pools of abandoned homes have turned into mosquito breeding grounds.

“They are real heroes,” says Josefa Cabada, a technician at the Contra Costa Mosquito & Vector Control District, a government agency. “I’ve never seen a mosquito in a pool with mosquito fish.”

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Flesh eating insects feasted on dino bones

May 10, 2008

A new study has attributed the cause of most dinosaur skeletons exhibiting pits, grooves and furrows to flesh and bone-eating insects, which gnawed on the dinosaur bones.

According to a report in the Discovery News, the evidence comes from dinosaur bones that were buried under soft mud 148 million years ago after a nearby river overflowed.

Utah’s Western Paleontological Laboratories recovered the bones and turned them over to Brigham Young University scientists, who recently pieced together what happened.

After scientists recreated the event, they found out that a Camptosaurus adolescent dinosaur died in what is now Wyoming, lying down for its final rest.

Flying low over a floodplain a few days later, dermestid beetles used their antennae to detect the odor of the decaying carcass, where they laid their larvae that consumed the dinosaurs bones.

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Want to Help the Environment? Eat Insects.

May 9, 2008

David Gracer lifts a giant water bug, places his thumbs in a pre-sliced slit in its underside, and flips off its head. “Smell the meat,” he says, sniffing the decapitated creature, and the people gathered around the table willingly oblige. Members of the New York Gastronauts, a club for adventurous eaters, they murmur appreciatively as they scoop out and swallow the grayish, slightly greasy insect flesh.

“Perfumey, tastes like salty apples,” one says. “Like a scented candle blended with an artichoke,” another adds.

The giant water bug, or Lethocerus indicus, a three-inch-long South Asian insect that looks uncannily like a local cockroach, is just one of the items on the menu of this bug-eating bacchanal. The Gastronauts’ meal may seem more like a reality TV stunt than a radical environmental strategy, but Gracer is on a serious mission to shake up how we all think about our food supply. Gracer, a self-described “geeky poet/nature boy” who teaches composition at a community college in Providence, Rhode Island, has made it his duty to persuade ordinary Americans to eat insects.

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The Largest Insects on Planet Earth

May 8, 2008

Cannibals, dancers, and pheromone emitters—some of the largest (and endangered) insects in the world are nurturing mothers in the wild, wearing poison as perfume, and crawling up human backs as friendly pets

Giant Walking Stick

Considered one of the best tropical insects to keep as a pet, the stick insect (Phasmatodea) derives from the Greek word, “phasma” (meaning phantom), which refers to its ability to disguise itself as varied species of sticks and leaves. The longest in the insect kingdom, it can measure up to almost two feet long. Many species of female stick insects live alone, reproducing asexually. Stick bugs are vegetarian but also molt numerous times to eat their own shed skin. When they perceive a threat, they fall to the ground and play dead or dance for hours, swaying back and forth.

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Trouble In Paradise: Global Warming A Greater Danger To Tropical Species

May 7, 2008

Polar bears fighting for survival in the face of a rapid decline of polar ice have made the Arctic a poster child for the negative effects of climate change. But new research shows that species living in the tropics likely face the greatest peril in a warmer world.

A team led by University of Washington scientists has found that while temperature changes will be much more extreme at high latitudes, tropical species have a far greater risk of extinction with warming of just a degree or two. That is because they are used to living within a much smaller temperature range to begin with, and once temperatures get beyond that range many species might not be able to cope.

“There’s a strong relationship between your physiology and the climate you live in,” said Joshua Tewksbury, a UW assistant professor of biology. “In the tropics many species appear to be living at or near their thermal optimum, a temperature that lets them thrive. But once temperature gets above the thermal optimum, fitness levels most likely decline quickly and there may not be much they can do about it.”

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Chinese Ants Show Promise For Fighting Arthritis, Other Diseases

May 6, 2008

Ants may be an unwelcome intruder at picnics, but they could soon be a welcome guest in your medicine cabinet. Chemists in China report identification of substances in a certain species of ants that show promise for fighting arthritis, hepatitis, and other diseases.

For centuries, ants have been used as a health food or drink ingredient in China to treat a wide range of health conditions, including arthritis and hepatitis. Researchers suspect that these health effects are due to anti-inflammatory and pain-killing substances in the ants. However, the exact chemicals responsible for its alleged medicinal effects are largely unknown.

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Insects Use Plants Like A Telephone

April 29, 2008

Dutch ecologist Roxina Soler and her colleagues have discovered that subterranean and aboveground herbivorous insects can communicate with each other by using plants as telephones. Subterranean insects issue chemical warning signals via the leaves of the plant. This way, aboveground insects are alerted that the plant is already ‘occupied’.

Aboveground, leaf-eating insects prefer plants that have not yet been occupied by subterranean root-eating insects. Subterranean insects emit chemical signals via the leaves of the plant, which warn the aboveground insects about their presence. This messaging enables spatially-separated insects to avoid each other, so that they do not unintentionally compete for the same plant.

In recent years it has been discovered that different types of aboveground insects develop slowly if they feed on plants that also have subterranean residents and vice versa. It seems that a mechanism has developed via natural selection, which enables the subterranean and aboveground insects to detect each other. This avoids unnecessary competition.

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Tiny Gardeners May Help Spread Invasive Species

April 24, 2008

Leaf-cutting ants are the gardeners of the insect world, cultivating fungus on the leaf pieces they bring back to the nest. And like their human counterparts, the ants have to deal with garden waste. After they harvest and feed the fungus to the colony, leaf-cutters often discard the organic debris in piles.

Refuse dumps like these might seem innocuous or even beneficial, the equivalent of a backyard compost heap. But researchers in Argentina report that leaf-cutter refuse piles can contribute to the spread of invasive plant species.

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