Animals of all phyla, many of them small and hardly noticeable, continue to astound researchers who study them. In 2019, scientists were amazed that the froghopper (an insect) could jump with an acceleration of 400 g’s, one of “the highest accelerations known among animals.” Nymphs of the related planthopper astounded everyone with the first discovery of gears in the animal world. It’s time to look at more animal champions that show design with Olympic flair.
A bat so small it could fit into a matchbox has flown 2,224 kilometers (1,382 miles) — and that could be an underestimate, says Nature. Weighing “less than a toothbrush,” the 10-gram bat Nathusius’ pipistrelles (Pipistrellus nathusii) flies between summer feeding grounds in Latvia and warmer climes in Spain.
Mexican free-tailed bats are not much bigger, and they migrate annually from Colorado to Mexico or as far as South America. That’s in addition to their nightly hunts for insects, which could cover many miles. These “jets of the bat world” live in colonies of up to 20 million individuals, and can live for 18 years, says the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum website.
Gymnastics: Water Striders
Olympic gymnasts seem to defy gravity, but they know their limits. Their twists and turns must fit within the ballistic time of flight according to their body mass and the springiness of the mat. Years of experience lets them attempt more complex moves within what is physically possible. But could they flip like that from water? Water striders can. Researchers from Seoul National University, reporting in Nature, decided to see if the Korean water striders push their limits:
Can individuals modify their leg movements based on their body mass and locomotor experience? Here we tested if water striders, Gerris latiabdominis, adjust jumping behaviour based on their personal experience and how an experimentally added body weight affects this process. Females, but not males, modified their jumping behaviour in weight-dependent manner, but only when they experienced frequent jumping. They did so within the environmental constraint set by the physics of water surface tension. [Emphasis added.]
Why don’t the males train like this? The summary here explains that females have to bear the weight of males during mating on the water. To be prepared, they practice jumping as high as they can without breaking the water. When researchers added extra weight to them, the bugs adjusted their leg movements and jumping velocities. This is a human-like ability; “There are many examples of animals, including insects, adjusting their behavior to changing environmental conditions through developmental or behavioral plasticity,” the article says, “but this study clearly shows that they can do it through personal experience, just like we do.”
Slingshot Tongue: Chameleon
The chameleon, a reptile, has one of the fastest tongues known, and that requires one of the fastest muscles in the animal world. The Florida Museum of Natural History describes how the slingshot tongue works:
The chameleon tongue is one of the fastest muscles in the animal kingdom and can rocket from 0 to 60 mph in a hundredth of a second in some species. It gets its speed from a specialized accelerator muscle that stores energy by contracting and then launching the elastic tongue with a recoil effect.
Now, the museum curators, looking at fossil albanerpetontids, “mercifully called ‘albies’ for short,” found this ability in these ancient amphibians. Said to have lived from 160 million years ago, albies have the skull and tongue-bone structure that suggests they had rapid-fire tongues 45 million years before chameleons “evolved” them — maybe even much earlier. The article shows a digital scan of the skull of an albie that was probably only two inches long in life.
Target Shooting: Spider
Speaking of slingshots, there’s a spider that, like Spiderman, flings its web over its victim instead of waiting for the prey to find it. We met it here before. The Scientist says that spiders in the Theridiosomatidae family build their orb webs with a trigger strand that launches spider and web over passing insects.
Leg over leg, a furry brownish-black spider tugs on a single silk thread, tightening the frame of its web. It pulls and pulls, as if removing slack from a slingshot, and then it waits. Minutes pass, sometimes hours. Then, when an unsuspecting insect flies by, the spider releases the thread, springing itself and its satellite dish–shaped web toward its prey. All of this happens in the blink of an eye, with the spider and its web hurtling through the air at more than 4 meters per second (9 miles per hour) with accelerations exceeding 130 g. That’s 130 times the acceleration experienced in freefall, and an order of magnitude greater than that of a sprinting cheetah.
This little 2-millimeter spider may not best the froghopper’s 400 g, but 130 g is not bad when it has to launch itself and its web accurately at a target. Researchers at Georgia Tech who observed the spiders in the Peruvian rainforest learned that snapping their fingers made the spider release the web, which they captured on a high-speed camera. Sheila Patek, a biologist from Duke who was not involved in this work, was humbled by watching the video:
“We humans always think we’re the best at everything, and in the natural world, those spiders are doing something that’s pretty difficult.” Other critters, including trap-jaw spiders and mantis shrimp, can move certain appendages such as claws or mouthparts at speeds of 30 to 80 kilometers per hour (20 to 50 miles per hour), she says. But slingshot spiders are using an external tool, a web, to snare their prey, and they’re working at speeds faster than their nervous systems can monitor, so they have to plan ahead and essentially let their spring and latch system control what happens after they let go of the tension thread. “It’s superpower-type stuff,”Patek says.
The spider, tricked by the finger snap, was able to reset and reload its slingshot “pretty quickly.”
A different species, the ogre-faced net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a similar but different method of casting nets. This species, 25 mm in size (10 times larger than the other one), builds a small orb web between its four front legs that it can cast over its prey as it dangles from a single silk line. New Scientist shows its ogre face in a color photo. It resembles a villain with sunglasses on, but during the day it disguises itself as a stick. Slow-motion video in the article shows it stretching out its net and quickly collapsing it around a potential meal. Researchers determined by blindfolding the spider that it “listens with its legs” at night for passing insects and has remarkable aim. It can even do backflips to catch prey overhead. Thankfully, this hunter that lives in the southern states and Latin America is relatively harmless to humans.
Obstacle Course: The Cockroach
Roaches are not welcome in the house, but one has to admire how they get around. They can push, climb, run, and slide around unfamiliar terrain with ease. That’s hard for robots to do. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University built an obstacle course for cockroaches so that they could film them in slow-mo and learn their tricks. The results are shown in a short video clip in the article. One trick they learned is the “leg jitter” (shake a leg, so to speak). The leg jitter “shook the body to give it enough energy to overcome the barrier from a more strenuous pitch to an easier roll movement, facilitating traversal.” Watch the bugs get around obstacles comparable to Navy Seals getting through fences; it’s impressive.
Inviting Darwin In
Here we are in 2020 and scientists are still finding animals doing amazing tricks. Evolutionary scientists and reporters try to invite Darwin into the story at times, but he has little to say, because most of these capabilities appear fully formed and already in use at high performance levels. Science can do fine without the old-fashioned, obligatory just-so stories about How the Olympic Animal Earned Its Medal. The simple awe of nature is sufficient to propel kids to want to become scientists, scientists to become biomimicry advisers, and engineers to take the knowledge gained by studying animal feats all the way to the patent office. Don’t ever forget that nature had it first.