What we're learning about how fire ants build their nests may change that. Scientists discovered that the pests use different excavating techniques, depending on what sort of soil they're in.
Other scientists found stretchy nerves in rorqual whales. The nerves are made from the same stuff found in other animals — what makes them stretchy is how the nerve fibers fold up.
- Fire Ants: Adaptable Invaders
- Gulping Whales, Stretchy Nerves
If I believed that the universe began at nightfall, October 22, 4004 BC — I could still be a Christian.
That's not how the universe is, though.
Insisting that God conforms to our assumptions doesn't make sense. Accepting reality does. (March 29, 2015)
At its core, my faith is fairly simple. The Apostles Creed starts with "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth...."
The Nicene Creed's "all that is, seen and unseen," doesn't leave much wiggle room: if any. God created everything. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 325-327)
A bit later, there's a discussion of what we can learn by paying attention to this world:
"The beauty of the universe: The order and harmony of the created world results from the diversity of beings and from the relationships which exist among them. Man discovers them progressively as the laws of nature. They call forth the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man's intellect and will."Ignoring the beauty and wonders around us is an option. We decide what we do or don't do. (Catechism, 311, 1704)
But I'd much rather take what we're learning about this world as an opportunity for "greater admiration" of God's greatness. (Catechism, 283)
Besides, like I keep saying, studying this universe and developing new technology is part of being human. It's what we do. (Catechism, 2293-2295)
Change happens. That's a good thing, since otherwise Genesis 3:1-19 would leave us with no hope. We'd be stuck in a broken world.
Happily, we live in a universe that's in a "state of journeying" toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 302)
We've learned that folks who made the first tools didn't look like Albrecht Dürer's 1504 engraving. That's okay.
I've seen enough old family photos to realize that our ancestors didn't look exactly like us. After some 2,5000,000-plus years, it'd be astonishing if we hadn't changed. (July 15, 2014)
No matter how we look, we're made in the image of God, male and female. Each of us is a person: not something, but someone; made from the stuff of this world, and filled with God's 'breath:' matter and spirit, body and soul. (Genesis 2:7; Catechism, 355, 357, 362-368)
Learning more about the 'clay' God used isn't a problem. Not for me. (December 5, 2014; February 23, 2014)
We've been developing new tech since day one. What's changed is how fast it's changing.
We'd used stone choppers for about 2,600,000 years before inventing today's mezzalunas.
Bessemer's mass-produced steel predates nylon by less than a century.
The first working personal rapid transit system opened 29 years before a maglev train began serving the Shanghai Pudong International Airport.
Small wonder some folks are a tad unsettled. (January 30, 2015; April 12, 2013)
I like living in "the future" — partly because I remember the "good old days." (January 23, 2015; August 29, 2014)
I was going somewhere with this. Where was it? Olduvai Gorge, Shen Kuo, personal rapid transit. Got it.
Real robots aren't much like their fictional counterparts: and most likely won't be for a very long time, if ever. I've discussed Talos, The Phantom Creeps, and getting a grip, before. (August 22, 2014)
One of the best, and funniest, discussions of robots and technophobia I've seen is XKCD's "Robot Apocalypse:"
"...Here are a few snapshots of what an actual robot apocalypse might look like:Then there's Rotwang's Maschinenmensch, and that's another topic. (August 15, 2014)
"In labs everywhere, experimental robots would leap up from lab benches in a murderous rage, locate the door, and—with a tremendous crash—plow into it and fall over.
"Those robots lucky enough to have limbs that can operate a doorknob, or to have the door left open for them, would have to contend with deceptively tricky rubber thresholds before they could get into the hallway.
"Hours later, most of them would be found in nearby bathrooms, trying desperately to exterminate what they have identified as a human overlord but is actually a paper towel dispenser...."
("Robot Apocalypse," What If? XKCD.com)
(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Invasive fire ants have dug in soils across different continents to establish their colonies"
"Invasive ants are extreme excavators"Quite a few species of ants are called "fire ants." This particular sort is Solenopsis invicta, called the red imported fire ant, or RIFA, in America. They're originally from the upper Amazon: like the intelligent, tool-using, ants in H. G. Wells' "Empire of the Ants."
Victoria Gill, BBC News (May 7, 2015)
"Researchers in the US have revealed a secret of the success of invasive fire ants - they can excavate any type of soil.
"Three-dimensional scanning revealed that the insects were able to build their complex nests regardless of the size of grains they needed to move.
"The ants also changed their excavation techniques depending on the type of soil in which they were digging...."
These little critters don't need tools. Put them on soil — real or simulated — with more than 5% moisture content, and they start excavating a nest. What they do, and what sort of nest they build, depends on the soil.
These scientists put their ants on "soil" made of tiny glass beads: which photograph nicely, and probably make it easier for researchers to tell the ants from the soil.
(From Laura Dantelle Wagner, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Filming ants in 'soil' made of glass beads let scientists study their tunneling techniques.)
"...This very visual experiment showed that the ants had two distinct excavation methods.I'm about as sure as I can be that these ants aren't people: so words like "inventiveness" don't quite apply. I'm also pretty sure that tying myself in linguistic knots, avoiding anthropomorphisms, isn't worth the effort. (April 24, 2015)
"In the coarse beads, they would grasp a single particle and shuffle backward up the tunnel, dragging it with them.
"But in the smaller beads - imitating finer soil - the ants grasped and compressed multiple grains into a pellet, while bracing themselves against the sides of the tunnel with their legs.
"They then gathered their pellet, turned and marched upward.
"Prof Goldman said he was most surprised by the ants' inventiveness, moulding these pellets - that were always the same size - like snowballs, using their forelimbs, jaws and even using their antennae.
" 'It is just mind blowing how they can dig so well,' he said. ..."
(Victoria Gill, BBC News)
As is, they've become serious pests in Australia, the Caribbean, several southern Chinese provinces, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the southern United States. Since their colonies won't survive temperatures below 16 ° Fahrenheit, -9 ° Centigrade, they're not a problem here in Minnesota.
RIFAs are more than a nuisance. Americans, for example, spend upwards of $5,000,000,000 each year, dealing with assorted RIFA-related medical treatment and property damage.
Pesticides will, eventually, kill RIFAs: but generally do more harm than good. It looks like planting colonies of raspberry crazy ants ahead of RIFAs would stop their spread, which reminds me of "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly," and I'm drifting off-topic.
Georgia Institute of Technology's Daniel I. Goldman said that studying these fire ants may help us design search and rescue robots. If researchers learn how fire ants organize themselves, making nests in different soils, that knowledge should help develop programs for robot swarms like Harvard's Kilobots. (August 22, 2014)
A swarm of robots with ant-like programming could safely explore and excavate complex, unstable, environments like collapsed buildings. At least, that's the idea.
(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Harvard's Kilobots: a swarm of 1,024 low-cost robots. (August 22, 2014))
- "Red Imported Fire Ants"
eXtension (March 16, 2015)
- "Behavioral and mechanical determinants of collective subsurface nest excavation"
Daria Monaenkova, Nick Gravish, Greggory Rodriguez, Rachel Kutner, Michael A. D. Goodisman and Daniel I. Goldman; abstract; The Journal of Experimental Biology (Received September 11, 2014; accepted February 27, 2015)
- "Climbing, falling, and jamming during ant locomotion in confined environments"
Nick Gravisha, Daria Monaenkovaa, Michael A. D. Goodismanb, Daniel I. Goldmana; PNAS (Received for review February 5, 2013; approved April 16, 2013)
(From SPL/Science Photo Library, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
("The rorqual family of whales includes some of the biggest animals alive"
"Big whales have stretchy nerves to help them gulp"Rorqual whales are one variety of baleen whale, big filter-feeding mammals with no teeth. They're really big. The blue whale, weighing around 200 tons, is the heaviest animal we know of.
Jonathan Webb, BBC News (May 5, 2015)
"Scientists have stumbled upon one of the secrets behind the big gulps of the world's biggest whales: the nerves in their jaws are stretchy.
"Rorquals, a family that includes blue and humpback whales, feed by engulfing huge volumes of water and food, sometimes bigger than themselves.
"Researchers made the discovery by inadvertently stretching a thick cable they found in the jaw of a fin whale.
"Most nerves are fragile and inelastic, so this find is a first in vertebrates...."
Baleen is made of keratin, stuff that helps make our fingernails, hair, and tongue durable. It's what baleen whales use instead of teeth.
Ancestors of today's baleen whales had baleen and teeth. Scientists are still working out how these whales evolved; which isn't easy, since how an animal acts isn't fossilized: apart from fossil footprints and the like.
Whatever the process was, these whales have the MMP20 gene for growing keratin, just like we do. As I've said before, life is very modular at the subcellular level. (March 6, 2015; December 26, 2014)
The oldest fossilized baleen is about 15,000,000 years old, but scientists are pretty sure it showed up 30,000,000 years ago. Baleen doesn't fossilize well: but whale skulls that old have a loose lower jaw and reinforced upper jaw, like today's models.
Earth's ocean had been changing, as usual. When the Drake Passage opened, about 41,000,000 million years back, an ice cap started forming on Antarctica: and that's yet another topic.
(From Blakey, Paleographic Library, used w/o permission.)
(Earth in the Priabonian, 35,000,000 years back.)
(From Vogel et al./Current Biology, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
("The thick, stretchy nerves were a big surprise to the research team"
"...It was Prof Vogl's co-author Robert Shadwick, a zoologist at the same university, who sparked the serendipitous discovery.Stretching a nerve often results in serious injury. Mr. Webb's article says that "where flexibility and a lot of movement are required, most animals simply have nerves that are a good safe length, with extra slack to be taken up if needed."
" 'We were looking at the muscle in the floor of the mouth and there were these long white cords,' Prof Vogl told the BBC. 'Bob picked one up - about 3ft of it - grabbed each end and stretched it. He turned to me and said, "Hey, look at this!"
" 'We thought it was a blood vessel.'
"This thick, white cord could stretch to twice its length and repeatedly sprang back to its original size. But when the team cut it open, it did not have a hollow inside like a blood vessel; instead there was a small, yellowish core running through the middle.
" 'I realised this was a nerve, and it was very different from any other nerve I've ever seen,' Prof Vogl said...."
(Jonathan Webb, BBC News)
These whale nerves are bundles of axons — a neuron's long, fragile, projection — like every other vertebrate's.
"...'They've used building blocks that are present in other animals but they've used them in different ways to produce this stretchy nerve,' Dr Vogl explained...."I found a pretty good description of how these 'bungee nerves' work on Stanford's website:
(Jonathan Webb, BBC News)
"...The nerve fibers are concentrated in the core of the nerve, arranged in simple folds, and wrapped in a layer of very thick elastin and collagen. The researchers suggest that when the whale begins its lunge, the fibers unfold and stretch quickly, with the collagen sleeve eventually functioning as a 'check ligament' to prevent overstretching. As the oral cavity returns to its pre-lunge size, the elastin acts to recoil the nerve into a folded bundle...."In other words, nerve fibers, packed in the nerve's elastin and collagen core, unfold as the nerve stretches. Elastin is a very elastic protein. Rope-like collagen fibers unwind: but only so far. Then they'll keep the nerve from overstretching.
Bjorn Carey, Stanford Report)
That's a good thing for rorqual whales, since they take in enormous volumes of water when feeding.
(From Thinstock, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Some rorqual whales can gulp more than their own volume into their balloon-like mouths"
A few years ago, scientists found an apparently-unique sensory organ in the chins of rorqual whales. And that's yet again another topic.
(Art by Carl Buell, arranged by Nicholas D. Pyenson / Smithsonian Institution; used w/o permission.)
("A new sensory organ, found within the chin of rorqual whales, is responsible for coordinating the biomechanics of their extreme lunge-feeding strategy. Left, a fin whale after lunging; right, anatomy of the new sensory organ."
- "Stanford biologists discover that large whales have nerves that stretch like bungee cords"
Bjorn Carey, Stanford Report (May 7, 2015)
- "Stretchy nerves are an essential component of the extreme feeding mechanism of rorqual whales"
A. Wayne Vogl, Margo A. Lillie, Marina A. Piscitelli, Jeremy A. Goldbogen, Nicholas D. Pyenson, Robert E. Shadwick; abstract, Current Biology (May 4, 2015)
- "Discovery of a sensory organ that coordinates lunge feeding in rorqual whales"
Nicholas D. Pyenson, Jeremy A. Goldbogen, A. Wayne Vogl, Gabor Szathmary, Richard L. Drake, Robert E. Shadwick; Nature (May 24, 2012)
- "How whales open their huge mouths"
Victoria Gill, BBC News (May 23, 2015)
- "Nature paper on a new sensory organ in rorqual whales"
Pyenson Lab, National Museum of Natural History Unearthed (Smithsonian)
- "Humility, Science, and Accepting Reality"
(March 29, 2015)
- "The Thumb-Brain Connection, and DIY Robots"
(March 27, 2015)
- "Mutant Cows, Mass Migrations, and a Brain Gene"
(March 6, 2015)
- "Mass Extinctions Revisited, Moving Octopuses"
(April 24, 2015)
- "Neurosynaptic Cores and Retinal Implants: Getting a Grip About Tech"
(August 15, 2014)