Since old Aristotle noted that “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous,” he’d’ve been awed by the strangeness of insects, although other animals can impress us, like butt-breathing pigs and eels with second sets of throat jaws. “Mammals Can Use Their Intestines to Breath,” a ScienceDaily.com article from last month describes how “researchers demonstrated that the delivery of oxygen gas or oxygenated liquid through the rectum provided vital rescue to” pigs, mice, and rats. These scientists “designed an intestinal gas ventilation system to administer pure oxygen through the rectums of mice.”
Why do such a thing? To create new ways to administer oxygen to Covid patients whose lungs are too scarred by the disease to allow normal breathing. However, “because the intestinal gas ventilation system requires abrasion of the intestinal muscosa, it is unlikely to be clinically feasible, especially in severely ill patients – so the researchers also developed a liquid-based alternative using oxygenated perflourochemicals. These chemicals have already been shown clinically to be biocompatible and safe in humans.”
So think twice before poo-pooing weird-sounding science experiments, such as testing the g-forces generated by killer flies (Coenosia attenuate) when they dive at their prey. Cambridge University released an article whose long title sums up their scientists’ findings: “Killer flies can reach accelerations of over 3g when aerial diving to catch their prey – but at such high speeds they often miss because they can’t correct their course.”
The tiny critters use gravity and their wings to reach speeds of 36 meters per second squared (36 m/s2), as opposed to falcons, the next faster animal that hunts from the air, who top out at a measly 6.8 m/s2. But even that feat pales in comparative strangeness to a SouthBendTribune.com article titled, “Fungus Full of Psychedelic Drugs Could Cause Indiana Brood X Cicadas’ Butts to Fall Off.”
The 17-year birth cycle of cicadas in Indiana is being threatened by “a twisted mix of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and a Grateful Dead show.” It’s a “gender-bending death zombie fungus” that creates “flying salt shakers of death.” George Washington University cicada experts warn that a “fungus laced with the same chemical as psychedelic mushrooms will invade their bodies and eat away their insides until their abdomens crack, fall off and get replaced with a ball of white spores. Because they’re either bombed on psilocybin or under the control of the fungus in some other way, the cicadas won’t even notice. With missing butts and full hearts, they’ll forge ahead with their only reason for existing: finding a mate and reproducing. Of course, that last part will be impossible with half their body rotted away. ‘Really what they’re doing is spreading these spores all over the place’ … ‘It’s a sexually transmitted fungus’.”
Even the beloved honeybee has its strange side, as evidenced in “Honeybees Fend Off Asian Giant Hornets With Poop,” an online article by Tom McKay about giant hornets preying on honeybees. When scout hornets spot beehives, they bring in reinforcements and begin “slaughtering bees at a rate of up to one per 14 seconds and sawing off their heads to gather protein-rich thoraxes and feast on pupae and larvae.” The hornets are too well-armored for the bees to sting effectively, but Japanese honeybees evolved an effective defense by swarming the hornet scouts and toasting them with their body heat. Other Asian honeybees deter the hornets by smearing the entrances to their hives with buffalo poop.
American honeybees have yet to come up with a defense, but we know our bumblebees can tell time. The “Ask Smithsonian” section of last December’s Smithsonian Magazine included a query about “How long does it take for a flower to replenish its nectar supply?” The response was “It all depends on the creature the flower evolved to attract … Plants adjust their nectar production to match the needs of their pollinators. Small blue borage flowers, which attract bees and butterflies, can replenish their nectar in two minutes. Agave plants, which attract needle-nosed bats, produce nectar only at night.” Of specific interest to Alaskans, a “recent study found that evening primrose is even able to detect the specific sound frequencies of its bee pollinators. When it does, it produces fresh nectar in three minutes to attract them.”
“In a finding that broadens our understanding of time perception in the animal kingdom,” ScienceDaily.com reported, researchers from the University of Western Ontario “have discovered that an insect pollinator, the bumble bee, can estimate the duration of time intervals. Although many insects show daily and annual rhythms of behavior, the more sophisticated ability to estimate the duration of shorter time intervals had previously been known only in humans and other vertebrates.”
I’ve learned a lot about bees from comic books written and illustrated by Jay Hosler, a well-credentialed and award-winning biology professor whose most recent book, “The Way of the Hive: A Honey Bee’s Story” is being considered for the Guys Read Gals Read program that presents fun to read books to fourth graders (when most kids stop reading for pleasure). Hosler’s book might be too advanced to appeal to middle school audiences, but I found it engaging, informative, and fun book to read. Don’t be misled by the “graphic novel” appellation that includes nonfiction as well as fiction. In fact, Hosler’s published a college-level comic textbook on ear evolution.
Even the most dubious-sounding new scientific explorations can have direct applications to humans, even if it’s merely amusement, like those moray eels’ throat jaws. A video included on a NYTimes.com article by Sabrina Imbler shows, “forceps nudge a piece of squid that sits on a ramp as an offering. Suddenly, a snowflake moray eel named Qani heaves its muscled bucatini of a body out of the water and onto the ramp. It opens its mouth and bites the squid. The eel pauses a moment, opens its mouth again and, as if its tongue were a conveyor belt, sucks the squid even deeper into its mouth using a secret second set of jaws in its throat.” For the record, morays have evolved this “second set of choppers,” called “pharyngeal jaws,” that can “leap forward out of the throat and into the mouth to grasp the prey and drag it deeper into the eel’s body.” The title of the article is, of course, “When an Eel Climbs a Ramp to Eat Squid From a Clamp, That’s a Moray.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.