Faster Than Fast: Mantis Shrimp and Trap-Jaw Ants

When most people think about the fastest animal, they think about the cheetah–the fastest runner in the animal kingdom. But, there are lots of other ways to think about fast. For example, if you take into account body size, a mite is the fastest.

But there are organisms that move even faster than that–and they don’t run at all. Sheila Patek studies organisms that exhibit ultrafast movements. Check out my interviews with her below.

The first is about mantis shrimp, some of which can move their appendages so fast that it boils the water. And bonus, I was able to work in a favorite The Oatmeal comic.

And the second is about trap-jaw ants, which can shut their jaws so fast that the movement catapults the ant into the air like a ninja.


Finding Nemo Got Clownfish Biology All Wrong

Aside from the fact that fish don’t talk, there are a few other misleading attributes of the characters and plot in the Disney–Pixar film Finding Nemo. To set the record straight, I interviewed animal behaviorists Marian Wong of University of Wollongong, Australia, and Peter Buston of Boston University, who both study social behavior of these and other fishes. Anyone want to do a sequel?

Frog Pants and Beyond

Protected Image.

Last month, I wrote a guest post about frog pants for the blog BuzzHootRoar that ended up garnering high levels of interwebs attention. I got the idea for it while reading the first chapter of Robert Martin’s book How We Do It, which I reviewed in the May–June issue of American Scientist. In addition to squeamish, ridiculous experiments (such as the frog pants experiment I talk about in both review and blog post), Martin’s book also draws attention to the inordinate number of questions that remain unanswered about the evolution of human sex biology and behavior. An example from the review:

“No other mammal potty trains its babies, and it remains unclear why people do. (In fact, most mammal mothers swallow their babies’ waste, so perhaps those who are potty training a toddler will not feel evolutionarily shortchanged here.) Breasts are not necessary for effective suckling nor are they reliably correlated with women’s health or nutrition, and no one agrees on why women have them. Some mammalian males do not have nipples. Science has yet to explain why men have retained them.”

You’ll have to read the review to get more of the goodies, or read the whole book. (Art for the BuzzHootRoar guest post, such as the illustration at left, by B. G. Merkle.)

Uncovering a Stealth Pathogen, Bartonellosis

Bartonella henselae bacilli in cardiac valve of a patient with blood culture-negative endocarditis. The bacilli appear as black granulations. (Photo by Warthin Starry, CDC, Wikimedia)

Bartonella henselae bacilli in cardiac valve of a patient with blood culture-negative endocarditis. The bacilli appear as black granulations. (Photo by Warthin Starry, CDC, Wikimedia)

I interviewed in October veterinarian and infectious disease researcher Ed Breitschwerdt of North Carolina State University about his studies of infections by bacteria in the genus Bartonella–the most familiar of which is cat scratch fever. Over his career, Breitschwerdt and his colleagues have discovered many new species of the bacteria and new hosts to the infections, including humans. Readers here may be interested that the number of bacterial species (sometimes acting as opportunistic pathogens), hosts, and reservoirs make this a very interesting, if complicated, disease ecology system. As Breitschwerdt said:

“We went from not knowing that Bartonella species existed in animals or humans in North America in 1990 to now finding Bartonellas in almost every animal that someone has taken the time to investigate.”

The most interesting part of the interview Continue reading

When Giant Beetle Horns Fail

Rhinoceros beetle, Trypoxylus dichotomus

Rhinoceros beetle, Trypoxylus dichotomus

Last year, I reported on new insights into the evolution of animal weaponry that University of Montana evolutionary biologist Erin McCullough found in her studies of rhinoceros beetle horns’ mechanical limits. Theory that explained why animal weapons (such as deer antlers or beetle horns) evolve said that such traits will become more and more exaggerated until the costs to survival outweigh the benefits to breeding success. McCullough’s research shows that sometimes it’s the costs to breeding success that outweigh the benefits to breeding success, at least for rhinoceros beetles, because sometimes the damn things become so unwieldy that they break easily. Mechanical limits, rather than mortality, regulates beetle horn size. No other possible limitation to survival or fitness explained these beetles’ horn size.

McCullough’s research has now withstood some scientific limits: Her results were published recently in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The research already withstood the trials and tribulations of the field, no small feat when studying nocturnal beetles in Taiwan. You can hear about those feats in my post about some of McCullough’s field stories.