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In Biology, Intelligent Designs that Amaze, Amuse, and Entertain

A parade of amazing designs from the living world has passed through these pages over the years, and it shows no sign of stopping. Here are some entertaining examples from recent news.

Jump Like a Flea, Beetle

Flea beetles, or Alticini, are high-jump champions among the coleopterans (beetles) in the insect world. There are some 9,900 species of flea beetles, a “hyper-diverse group” that inhabits environments from deserts to rainforests all over the world. The Pensoft blog shows a picture of one, saying, “Exceptional catapulting jump mechanism in a tiny beetle could be applied in robotic limbs.” 

The fascinating and highly efficient jumping mechanism in flea beetles is described in a new research article in the open-access journal Zookeys. Despite having been known since 1929, the explosive jump — which is also the reason behind the colloquial name of this group of leaf beetles — has so far not been fully understood. [Emphasis added.]

Because flea beetles often rest on leaves, they are exposed to predators. They have no need to worry. They can disappear in an instant. It must have been fun to watch them perform in the lab and then watch the high-speed video recordings.

The apparatus responsible for this exceptional jump is hidden inside the beetle’s hind legs and is relatively simple. It contains only three sclerotised parts and a few muscles. Yet, it is, in reality, a highly efficient “catapult”, able to propel the beetle at a distance hundreds of times its body length.

The mechanism stores elastic potential energy which, upon release, converts to kinetic energy when the “trigger” is released, attaining “an extraordinarily high acceleration.” Because the jump is done without muscles, the beetles are able to perform 30 jumps in succession, the researchers found. This simple yet efficient mechanism could find wide application. The team made a blueprint of a robotic limb “design of a bionic limb inspired by the studied beetles.” And what do they say about this design? Why of course; it is an “evolutionary success”!

Fake Dolphins

Some of the biologists at Lehigh University may be mocking Behe’s views on intelligent design, but engineer Keith Moorad is using them. He is studying the tail motions of toothed whales, including dolphins, in hopes of building underwater swimming robots.

Such robots would need to be fast, efficient, highly maneuverable, and acoustically stealthy. In other words, they would have to be very much like bottlenose dolphins or killer whales.

He has no time for the evolution hypothesis; he is too focused on the “fin-tastic” design of dolphins. 

“This fish swimming problem is a really exciting problem because it’s so complicated,” he says. “It’s fascinatingto take this chaos of variables and see order in it, to see the structure in it, and to understand what’s fundamentally happening.”

He’s also having fun using a $7 million grant from the Navy to study this. Someday, he thinks, dolphin mimics that could fool both fish and humans will be able to roam among schools to monitor fish stocks. If he can get his robot to jump and retrieve fish from a tower, find fish under the sea floor with echoes, or make baby robots, he’ll really be onto something.

Seeing the Invisible

Human eyes are limited to the visible spectrum. We can feel heat on the skin and sense the general direction it’s coming from, but imaging the source requires infrared cameras or night vision goggles. A surprisingly diverse group of animals, though, have infrared cameras built in. The International Society for Photonics and Optics, or SPIE, writes about “Nature’s Infrared Club” —

A handful of biological species can detect Infrared radiation. Envious of this evolution-honed sensory superpower, researchers with technological visions are working to emulate it.

There are shrimp that can “see” hydrothermal vents, for instance. “To the shrimp, the hot plumes of water might appear like gaudy illuminated fountains in a background of profound blackness.” Many diverse species of snakes belong to the infrared club, such as the pit vipers that have special organs for sensing prey. They “work like pinhole cameras and probably enable a kind of IR imaging,” one herpetologist says. In addition, some butterflies use infrared light to detect the host plants for egg-laying. Rounding out the club are ticks, and even vampire bats, which employ IR to locate their warm-blooded hosts.

How might biologists join the infrared club? Gang Han at the University of Massachusetts proposes a Bionic-Man solution, applying lab-made nanoparticles to retinas that can absorb infrared light. So far, he has only demonstrated this capability with “super-mice,” but eventually, the technology might extend human vision into the infrared. Francis Collins, head of the NIH, was impressed with this “dramatic advance that brings together material science and the mammalian vision system….” The SPIE adds:

Han acknowledged that the plan is to take necessary steps, through a series of primate studies and then by navigating relevant ethical and regulatory challenges, to develop a safe technology that would modify peoples’ eyes to directly see IR without any bulky goggles or other optical gadgetry. It’s the sort of superpower that brings soldiers and first-responders to the mind’s eye. If the researchers succeed in delivering this human vision-enhancement technology, then people will join what always has been a rarefied and enviable club of the living kingdom that can see infrared (IR) radiation.

The article includes electron micrographs of the pit organs that give snakes this kind of vision. The organs look elaborate, pointing like miniature cones into the environment. These organs must not only detect infrared, but send it to the appropriate portions of the brain that know how to interpret the information and act on it. And now, for the commercial: “The pit organs’ structural and material details embody the engineering brilliance that evolutionary forces can yield.

Walking Paper

For a final example, consider origami. Paper sculptures are fun, but static. What if you could make a paper flower that blooms? That’s what scientists in Singapore did. Their secret was to take natural pollen and integrate it into the paper fabric. When exposed to moisture, the petals of their paper “flower” opened up just like a bloom. In another test, they were able to make paper “walk” through the self-actuation of pollen-impregnated paper. How does this work? There’s evolution involved, but not the Darwinian kind:

We interpret this differential behavior by noting that the smoother and more compact bottom layers of pollen paper demonstrate a greater propensity to hinder the diffusion of water molecules compared with the top layers. The result is an acceleration in the establishment of moisture equilibrium throughout the paper, which leads to larger differences in the degree of swelling and evolution of internal stress between the two sides of the paper. As a result, compared with the top surface, the bottom surface generally exhibited increased curvature, as shown in Fig. 6E.

Many plant materials exhibit the same sensitivity to moisture. For instance, dandelion “parachutes” fold up in the rain, as shown in Illustra Media’s “2-Minute Wonders” video, An Uplifting Story.

The Singapore team published their work in PNAS with video clips of the action. This was serious fun.

In summary, using eco-friendly treatment of naturally occurring pollen that is rendered nonallergenic through a simple fabrication process, we have created an economically viable soft actuator with a highly sensitive response to water vapor…. This pollen actuator demonstrates the potential for developing a wide spectrum of smart and eco-friendly actuation systems with tunable properties that dynamically respond to different functional needs.

To summarize: Design science is more fun than Darwinism, and does more good for humanity.

Photo: A flea beetle, by Beatriz Moisset / CC BY-SA.