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…

The Language of DNA

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One of the striking things about the genetic code is the remarkable way it twists back on itself, combining redundancy and utility in a simple, elegant language. Many of us are introduced to the basic concept in school, but that introduction often leaves out the wrinkles — some of them newly discovered — which give the system its resilience and precision. Despite their complexity, most of these tricks are pretty easy to explain with linguistic analogies, which is precisely what I’m going to try in this post. Continue reading

The Sky’s Limits

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Every day around 30,000 aircraft take to Europe’s skies. Choreographing this airborne dance is daunting. At the moment, it’s orchestrated by the disparate air traffic management systems of each European country, with control handed over at border crossings. The aeronautics research team at the University of Malta is part of an ambitious EU project to change that by establishing a single European sky, enabling EU air traffic controllers to manage increasing amounts of traffic with greater safety, lower costs, and a reduced environmental impact.

Image courtesy FlightRadar24.comOne of the things I love about writing is the way it feels like an endless journey of discovery, constantly offering opportunities to learn about new subjects (and to revisit familiar ones from a different angle). I recently wrote an article for the University of Malta’s Think Magazine about their aeronautics team’s research; I’d never given much thought to air traffic management before, and I really enjoyed learning a bit about the field. It turns out to be a pretty active area of research, full of challenging problems, interesting solutions, and important practical considerations. I really enjoyed writing the article, and it’s available for free on Think‘s website in case you want to learn more about the choreography of the skies.

(Image courtesy FlightRadar24.com. If you’ve got a few minutes to spare, go play with it — it’s fun to see the patterns in planes’ routes!)

Sequencing the Blue Beetle Genome

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I would normally save this striking video for a Found While Foraging, but since it’s time-sensitive I decided to share it immediately:

Dean Rider, an assistant professor at Wright State University, got in touch with me about his crowd-funding project to sequence the blue beetle genome. I’ve never heard of the blue beetle, but it sounds like a fantastic little critter and I’m generally fond of crowd-funding (as has certainly become clear by now), so have a look at the project and consider spreading the word, even if you can’t back it yourself.

Speciation in Reverse

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I don’t usually advertise my Accumulating Glitches posts on here, but I decided to make an exception for today’s post. It’s about a relatively straightforward study that raises a host of interesting questions which I thought some of you might find interesting. Here’s an excerpt to give you an idea:

Darwin’s finches have become a textbook example in evolutionary biology, speciating as they adapted to different environments in their spread through the Galapagos islands. In the past two decades, the opposite has been happening on Floreana island in the south of the archipelago, according to a paper published in the journal American Naturalist. The opposite of speciation, however, isn’t necessarily extinction — at least, not in the familiar sense of a species dying out. Another way for speciation to roll backwards is through hybridization, a process that raises many more (and more interesting) questions than ‘straightforward’ extinction.

Click to continue reading on Accumulating Giltches

Ref
Kleindorfer S, O’Connor JA, Dudaniec RY, Myers SA, Robertson J, & Sulloway FJ (2014). Species collapse via hybridization in Darwin’s tree finches. The American naturalist, 183 (3), 325-41 PMID: 24561597

Live 3-D X-ray video of a fly’s muscles in mid-flight

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Flies are incredibly agile on the wing, pulling off twists and turns that outstrip anything we’ve accomplished. Their flight is powered by two pairs of large muscles in their thorax which contract rhythmically to make their wings beat anywhere between 100 and 1000 times per second. Power is transferfed from these muscles to the wings by a hinge made of an intricate collection of steering muscles. Although the steering muscles make up less than 3% of the flight muscle mass, they very effectively direct the force produced by the larger muscles, thus guiding the fly’s aerial acrobatics. In a paper appearing in PLoS Biology, a team of scientists from the UK and Switzerland used a particle accelerator to record high-speed X-ray images of blowflies (Calliphora vicina) in flight, producing a 3-D video of the inside of the fly showing the muscles moving as it manuevered. Continue reading