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A Boring Idea: Fig Wasp Physiology Could Mean Better Surgical Tools

by Michael Keller

Future surgeries requiring a doctor to dive deep into the body might be made considerably less invasive thanks to an unlikely inspiration: a parasitic fig wasp.

Mechanical engineers at the Indian Institute of Science have been investigating the reproductive process of Apocryta westwoodi grandi, a wasp that deposits its eggs inside a developing fig fruit next to those of another species of wasp. When the eggs hatch, they feed on the larvae of the non-parasitizing wasp before growing and emerging into the world.

While the interactions of the two wasp species and the plant are biologically interesting in their own right, the part that caught the eyes of researchers in Namrata Gundiah’s biomechanics laboratory was how the parasitic wasp deposited its eggs deep within the fruit.

Like many insects and some other animals, the parasitic wasp deposits its eggs through a long tubular organ called an ovipositor. But this particular wasp must pierce the skin and bore through the tough tissue of an unripened fig.

“From a mechanical perspective, it’s really interesting how this insect can penetrate a needle that is really quite flexible into hard material,” doctoral student Lakshminath Kundanati tells Txchnologist. “So we looked at the structure of the needle and whether any parts on it are specifically adapted to help.”

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Mite Sets New Record as World’s Fastest Land Animal

by Michael Keller

Sure, if miles per hour is going to be your yardstick to confer the title of World’s Fastest Animal, then maybe the peregrine falcon is your creature. When hunting, it can swoop down on its prey in excess of 200 mph. Or perhaps you’re an advocate for the lightning quickness of sailfish and marlin, which various sources claim can attain speeds up to 80 mph.

Then, of course, there’s the cheetah, whose long galloping stride for many is the definition of speed. The fastest of these cats has been clocked at 64 mph.

But if you want to look at the broader world of animal locomotion and compare apples to apples, then body lengths per second (blps) should be your measure of choice. This metric reflects how quickly an animal moves relative to its body size.

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An Earth Day Thought: Cooperation Is A Survival Tool

by Michael Keller

Every sunrise is a new breath of life. The morning comes and our star once again bathes us in the energy upon which the whole machinery of being runs. And life responds with every day’s beginning—plants grow; animals graze, browse and hunt; fungi, bacteria and insects slowly bring all of us back into the soil. When the night comes, much of life becomes quiet. Even then, though, many organisms remain at work, taking advantage of the darkness to give birth, take prey, and otherwise make their way in a crammed world. The Earth is beautiful and brutal—such is the nature of life.

Creatures breathe from almost every place on our planet, from the hydrothermal vent communities in the crushing pressure and pitch black abyss of the ocean’s floor to the microbes catching rides through the stratosphere on Sahara Desert dust storms. It’s a constant competition among individuals and species. Yet an exquisite adaptation to succeed in the bloodsport of survival has arisen over evolutionary time—cooperation. Many of us come equipped to work together so that we may individually and collectively live a little better.

"Organisms are inherently competitive, yet cooperation is widespread," wrote Columbia University’s Dustin Rubenstein and James Kealey in a 2010 paper in the journal Nature. ”Genes cooperate in genomes; cells cooperate in tissues; individuals cooperate in societies.”

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Stealing the Secrets of Spider Silk

by Karin Heineman, Inside Science

Spiders put their silk to use in all sorts of ways. Now, Jeff Yarger, a biochemist at Arizona State University in Tempe, and his colleagues are finding ways that spider silk can benefit humans.

"We’re actually collecting natural silk from spiders that are prey-wrapping,” said Yarger.

The silk that spiders use to wrap and immobilize their prey is different from the silk they use to build webs or dangle from a ceiling. It’s also the least studied. Now scientists are harvesting this silk to find out what makes it different.

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