Leaping Bugs Masters of Acceleration
High-speed cameras and a lot of curiosity have led to some amazing photos of muscles. The pics aren’t body builders, but athletes of a different stripe.
One researcher has uncovered the secrets of jumping, hopping and landing among some of the planet’s best engineered creatures: insects. Dr Gregory Sutton, who is working with colleagues at Universities of Cambridge and Bristol, studies the acrobatics of a fleas, grasshoppers, and froghoppers.
What Dr. Sutton has discovered sheds light on the limitations of muscle groups. In order for insects to leap, they must accelerate quickly – almost instantaneously. Yet muscles have upper limits in the amount of energy they can produce.
The way insect engineering has evolved to gain more acceleration is to use “ratcheting” processes, as well as storing energy and springing forward. These methods can be understood by thinking of the energy in a bow and arrow. To shoot the arrow, the bow is drawn back, which takes muscle energy in the arms. But the energy of the pulling back is also stored in the bow itself. Upon release, the stored bow energy is what makes the arrow fly.
Insects have structural components to allow “ratcheting” up before springing. They will even alter how they move in the moments prior to jumping to make sure energy is stored in their legs.
Considering how insects have survived in a tough environment with many larger predators, their ability to leap quickly makes evolutionary sense. The adaptations of hopping and flying are often escape maneuvers.
Plant Lab Has Seen It All
Plant diseases are their specialty, but this trio of dedicated flora detectives gets samples of every stripe at their lab. Anything plant related can arrive in the mail. A woman sent a mushroom part in the mail, wanting to know if it was responsible for her hospital stay. Another curious citizen mailed bloody skin – presumably his own – to see if it had parasites. But most of the detective work is focused on plant diseases and insects.
At the Schutter Diagnostic Lab at Montana State University, three scientists toil to discover the roots of problems with plants. The plant disease specialist is Eva Grimme. A second specialist has the title of Urban Insect Diagnostician and Assistant Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Specialist, and her name is Laurie Kerzicnik. A third scientist, Noelle Orloff, has arrived recently to help handle the many specimens that arrive at the lab daily.
With such a heavy caseload, Mary Burrows, who supervises the lab and is also an MSU Extension Plant Pathologist, says she’d need an extra employee just to count all the inquiries. She suggests that if you are a resident of the state, start with your local Extension agents if you are wondering about insects or plants.
All lab services are free to state residents, but out-of-staters need to pay a small fee to have their plants examined.
Spider Blues? A Cure at London Zoo
The London Zoo wants to help any aracnophobes out there regain some of their sanity. After a four hour class, students can graduate proudly, knowing that nothing that walks on eight legs is their enemy.
From April to October, the zoo sponsor classes at about $150 a person. For some, it’s worth the time and expense because their fear of spiders is so great that it really does interfere daily life.
One participant reported that he chose the class after realizing that he was unable to enter his own backyard shed. Other class members ranged from children to the elderly – all in search of the same magical cure for creepy-crawly nightmares.
Group members discussed their fears, waiting for the main event: group hypnosis. About halfway through the class, all participants lay on the carpeted floor and underwent a half-hour hypnosis session. Afterwards, they all trudged toward the Bug House, to interact with spiders in a new way.
The spider zone inside the zoo consists of open boxes and bins with spiders, and the class members were encouraged to let the spiders get to know them. First by gently nudging, then letting spiders crawl up and down arms, the intrepid members of arachnophobia school all came out with a new respect, and even affection, for their former dreaded enemies. They also received certificates of completion.