We all know the big plants and animals that get attention in the intelligent design discussions, culminating in Your Designed Body with all its intricate, interconnected systems. Cells, too, have good design reputations with their molecular machines, genetic and epigenetic codes, signal processing, and much more. In between those scales are many organisms given short shrift. They might be the kind seen scrambling when we turn over a rotten log, or chomping on the garden plants. Our reaction? Swat them, spray them, step on them. Let us think before overreacting. On closer inspection, these ugly ducklings pack a lot of engineering design in a small space.
Butterflies get most of the celebrity in the order Lepidoptera because of their colors and general harmlessness to humans. Mark Stevens at the University of Adelaide, writing for The Conversation, would like to improve the reputation of their ugly stepsisters, the moths.
When you think of moths, do you see holes in your clothes, pests in the pantry, or pesky insects drawn to night lights spoiling your social BBQ? Or worse, do you have an irrational fear of moths? (That’s called mottephobia).
Would it surprise you to learn moths are not the poor cousin of butterflies? They’re incredibly diverse and deserve a second chance. [Emphasis added.]
We should note, first off, that moth species outnumber butterfly species by over nine to one. 160,000 species of moths are known to science and there could be millions more. Moths are incredibly diverse in size, behavior, and habitat.
Like butterflies, moths undergo complete metamorphosis. Some moths, he says, remain in the caterpillar stage for years underground, only to hatch and spread their wings for a single day. Moths are important pollinators at night, more efficient than bees. Some can hear bat sonar with sensors on their legs in time to make evasive maneuvers. Many communicate over miles with pheromones, and some even whistle.
So next time you’re out for a walk, or spending time in your garden, day or night, look out for moths. They’re truly remarkable creatures.
Snails attract some design attention with their coiled shells but seem creepy as well. Their slimy bodies leave mucus trails on our sidewalks, and we watch with frustration as they chew away at our garden plants. Researchers at City University of New York have become fascinated with the creepiest part of these terrestrial mollusks: snail mucus.
What is snail mucus? That was the question posed by researchers in a new study that examines the molecular composition of snail mucus. When analyzing the mucus of a common garden snail, they found it contained a complex collection of proteins, some identified as entirely novel.
In a newly published paper in Nature Communications, scientists profile the mucus of Cornu aspersum — a species used in beauty product formulation and eaten as escargot — and detail the composition of three unique types of secretions — one that hydrates and protects its skin, another that works as a glue-like adhesive, and another that lubricates to allow the animal to move freely across surfaces.
“We were surprised that the mucus compositions were quite different, despite being produced by the same species,” said lead author Antonio Cerullo, a biochemistry Ph.D. student at the CUNY Graduate Center. “Even more so, the adhesive snail glue and the lubricious snail trail, which have completely opposite purposes, come from the same part of the snail. It was exciting to discover that very subtle differences in mucus compositions have huge impacts on their biological and material properties.”
The dendrogram in the paper, resembling a circular phylogenetic diagram at first, should be viewed instead as a product catalog for a major materials manufacturing company. More than 22 families of complex proteins involved in snail mucus are shown! The research has attracted funds from the NSF, Air Force, Space Force, Navy, Allen Institute, and NIH.
About one-third of the proteins found in the mucus shared no similarity with any proteins in the global databases that were searched, said the researchers. In short, the secretions contain many proteins that are unlike any others known to science.
While many connoisseurs have overcome their squeamishness about eating snails in fancy restaurants, fashionable ladies might prefer not to hear what comes next. “Snail mucus is widely used in cosmetics, moisturizers, anti-aging creams, wound care treatments, and antimicrobials,” the article says. “Beauty products containing snail mucus are a multi-billion-dollar global industry.”
This item was found in Current Biology about the “insect crytonephridial complex” — i.e., insect kidneys. What is the cryptonephridial complex?
Probably one of the most powerful water-extraction systems in nature.
That beetle under the rotten log may hold a world record. A set of water extraction tubules in a beetle’s rump reabsorbs almost all the water from its waste. This allows some species to survive in the driest environments on earth, and even to extract water from the air.
The authors state that since most animals are insects, a quarter of all animals possess these “highly efficient recycling systems” that scientists are keen to imitate. “It is clearly an incredibly powerful piece of engineering and a highly important feature of how animals conserve water and extract it from their environment,” they say.
In each of these news stories, the authors usually attribute the engineering design to evolution, but none of them focus on the Darwinian narrative gloss. Much more fascinating, they seem to indicate, is the design. Let’s look at one more ugly duckling.
“Many people hate wasps, but they’re smarter than you might think — and ecologically important,” say Monash University scientists Scarlett Howard and Adrian Dyer in The Conversation. These two biologists are quick to point out that some wasps are rather lovable.
The stereotypical wasp is the angular, angry-looking vespid with black and yellow stripes known as the European wasp (Vespula vulgaris). It has a reputation for aggression, stinging multiple times and contributing little to society. But that’s just one of more than 100,000 known wasp species with a wide range of appearances, many of which don’t even sting.
“In our work with wasps,” they continue, “we have found these innocent insects have done little to deserve our scorn. In fact, they have surprisingly complex minds and can play important ecological roles.”
Howard and Dyer designed IQ tests for wasps. Teaching them to come for sugar water, they found that hornets could distinguish closely related color hues for the reward and adjust quickly when the hues were switched. They learned more quickly when the wrong color gave a nasty bitter taste. There’s learning ability and memory in those little brains!
The scientists give more reasons to like (if not love) wasps:
Wasps play an important role in many ecosystems by controlling pests and pollinating flowers. Many Australian orchids, for example, rely on wasps for pollination — as do hundreds of other plant species….
Many wasps eat critters we consider pests, such as bugs, spiders, cockroaches and flies. Indeed, some species of wasp are sold commercially as pest control agents.
With what we’ve considered in moths, snails, beetles, and wasps, we shouldn’t be too hasty to despise the bugs, spiders, cockroaches, and flies. There are undoubtedly more undiscovered design stories in each of those groups if we were to look closely.