Ants have been farming for far longer than humans have existed. They discovered fungus farming around fifty or sixty million years ago in the wet rainforests of South America, and have continued tending their underground fungus gardens through countless years as the planet changed and changed, and changed again. Much more recently — just a few years ago — I wrote about the fungus-farming ants (called “attine ants”), trying to imagine how they might view human agriculture. Our imaginary attine author closed with the hope that studying humans might help the attines understand their own history, “such as how the transition from primitive to advanced agriculture occured in our own ancestors”, and now a study by a group of humans has shed light on that very question. Continue reading
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.
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
Today officially marks the first anniversary of Inspiring Science, and it’s been a great year! I think I managed to make some progress towards the goals I outlined in my first post. Over the course of the past year, I’ve learned how to make my writing more accessible and become better at engaging with non-scientists, though unfortunately I haven’t managed to write as frequently as I would have liked. I hope I can rectify that and continue to improve those skills, but I’m also going to try to do a better job of fostering discussion over the next 12 months. I have a few ideas about how to do that; we’ll see how well they pan out. (If you have a suggestion, let me know!)
If you’re one of the newer readers, why not take a romp through the archives? There’s some good stuff buried on there that doesn’t often make it onto the “What’s popular now?” list in the sidebar. I’ve also picked five posts from the past year which I wish had received more attention and listed them below; I hope you’ll enjoy them.
- Natural selection: On fitness
- Social wasps are specialists at recognizing faces
- Of moss and micro-arthropods
- We still don’t know how birds navigate
- Gene expression: shape matters
With that said, I look forward to another year of writing about science; thanks for reading, commenting and generally keeping me company on this adventure! If you have any suggestions about what I could do differently or better (or what I’m doing well) please leave a comment so I can learn and improve. 🙂
In the 1990s, Suzanne Rutherford and Susan Lindquist were studying fruit flies with a mutated version of the Hsp90 gene and found that the absence of this single gene led to a wide range of developmental defects. This was surprising not only because Hsp90 isn’t directly related to development, but also because of the remarkable breadth of its impact. Uncovering how this gene affects so many aspects of development has led to an intriguing story linking responses to environmental stress with the evolution of developmental pathways.
Several years ago, scientists published an excellent study about how desert ants find their way home after foraging. The story got a lot of media attention; unfortunately, much of the coverage described the ants “counting steps”, which isn’t what the researchers reported and feeds into existing myths rather than broadening our scope. To explain what I think is wrong with that approach, I’m going to tell you a story about ants on stilts, body swapping and how we perceive space. Continue reading