The Ten-legged Spider

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Every word in the title is a lie. The creature I’d like to introduce isn’t a spider and it doesn’t have ten legs, but that was exactly what I thought when I got a good look at it, which wasn’t the first time I saw it. The first time I saw it, I thought it might have been a plant’s root or some kind of stolon. I had just jumped in for a swim on Saturday afternoon when I saw something brown at the bottom of the pool. It wasn’t moving, and it seemed to be about the size of my thumb. Grabbing the sieve, I dived down and fished it out, then called my partner over. “Can you have a better look at this and see what it is? I think it’s some kind of root, but I can’t really see it properly.” My long, wet hair was obscuring my vision and I was trying to keep the sieve above water.

“It’s a spider,” she said. “A gigantic spider!” (It was gigantic — around 8-9cm across!) I’m lucky enough to be married to someone with a fascination for creepy-crawlies; with a smile, she deposited the dead spider in a jar for later examination and then joined me in the pool. Continue reading

The Bone-house Wasp

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The newly discovered Bone-house wasp, Deuteragenia ossarium, builds a unique nest for its young. Unlike species which excavate their own nests, D. ossarium belongs to a group of nest-building wasps which use existing cavities, such as abandoned galleries of wood-boring beetles, as nest sites. Female wasps abandon their nests after sealing their brood within; they don’t care for their young or offer any protection beyond what the nest provides. The nest consists of a few brood-containing cells and an outer ‘vestibular’ cell — an entryway — which probably serves as a defensive barrier. The vestibule is usually empty, but researchers surveying nests in southeast China found a surprise in some of the entry halls — they were full of ant corpses. The team reared the brood from the nests and discovered a new wasp species, which they named after the striking ossuaries found in some parts of the world.
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How Some Critters Evolved to Eat Poison

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Since plants generally can’t move around, they have to rely on other strategies to cope with animals eager to turn them into a meal. Chemical weapons are a significant part of plants’ defensive arsenal. For example, thousands of plant species produce precursors of the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide; when an animal eats the plant, the precursors get converted into cyanide, which kills the offending animal. Continue reading

Book review: We Are Our Brains

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'We Are Our Brains' by Dick SwaabI have mixed feelings about We Are Our Brains. The author, Dick Swaab, is a professor of neurobiology at Amsterdam University with decades of research experience and many awards to his name, so the book is full of fascinating and intriguing information. Unfortunately, I felt like the delivery was somewhat lacking, leaving me with more questions and wanting more information. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but I feel like the book could have done a much better job of handling some of the inevitable questions and challenges it raises — it could benefit from engaging in dialogue with the reader rather than simply making assertions. Continue reading

The give-and-take between mothers and their offspring

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Image credit: Flickr user nekrumThis is a story about a gene which makes nursing mice produce more nutritious milk while also making their offspring less demanding. The gene serves to balance nutrient supply and demand between the mother and pup. If the gene is knocked out, the mother’s milk is less rich, but the pups are more demanding, evening out the impact. Things only go wrong when there’s a mismatch. If pups with a defective copy of the gene feed from a normal mother, their increased demand makes them grow larger than normal. Conversely, pups with a good copy end up smaller if they feed from a mother lacking a working copy, since her milk is less nutritious. Continue reading

The Right Way to Fall

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My latest story on Beacon is about how cats and other animals manage to always land on their feet. It turns out to be a pretty impressive maneuver, and geckos have evolved and entirely different trick to accomplish the same thing:

There’s no need to go far afield to find wonders of the natural world; sometimes it just takes a shift of perspective to notice how they abound in our homes and neighborhoods. Cats, for example, are exquisite animals, with an uncanny ability to take a fall harmlessly by righting themselves in midair. Several years ago, my cat slipped off a sixth-storey ledge, falling something like 20 meters onto hard concrete. She was limping for a few weeks, but her knee healed and there’s no sign of the injury left. How cats manage such a feat is a question which has occupied scientists for over a century; it’s been the subject of in-depth studies in physics, physiology, and even robotics. While some of the details are still unclear, the essential picture is that cats (almost) always land on their feet thanks to an impressive spine-flexing twist maneuver which turns them upright in midair.

Head over to Beacon for the full story…