What happens inside a caterpillar's cocoon? Scientists got to watch the whole process with the help of X-ray 3D scanning technology. In the video above, you can watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly. Over the course of 16 days its breathing tubes (shown in blue) and its digestive system (shown in red) change shape and position within the body, while other structures grow from scratch.
Ed Yong has a great story to go with this, too. All about why it's important to actually watch the process happening in a single caterpillar, instead of just relying on the data scientists have collected from years of dissecting different caterpillars at different stages in the transformation.
The Golden Ratio — that geometric expression of the Fibonacci sequence of numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, etc.) — has influenced the way master painters created art and can be spotted occurring naturally in the seed arrangement on the face of a sunflower. But its serendipitous appearances aren't nearly as frequent as pop culture would have you believe, writes Samuel Arbesman at The Nautilus. In fact, one of the most common examples of mathematical perfection — the chambered nautilus shell — actually isn't. Even math can become part of the myths we tell ourselves as we try to create meaning in the universe.
Ambergris is often referred to as "whale vomit", but that's not really correct. A more accurate analogy would be to say that ambergris is like the whale equivalent of a hairball. It's produced in the whale digestive tract, possibly to protect intestines from the sharp, pointy beaks of squid — you'll often find squid beaks embedded in the stuff. Most of it gets pooped out. But the big chunks of ambergris have to exit the other direction. In the human world, these lumps — which have the consistency of soft rock or thickly packed potting soil — are famous because we use them to make things like perfume. The ambergris washes up on beaches, people collect it, and sell it to make cosmetics.
Anyway, that's what usually happens. Recently, a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Holland and the conservationists who dissected it found a huge quantity of ambergris in the animal's intestines.
That news made me realize that I'd never actually seen a picture of ambergris before, so I went hunting around to see what the stuff looked like. That's a photo of a lump of ambergris, above. But it's not really indicative of what ambergris looks like all the time. In fact, as far as I can tell, the stuff comes in a wide variety of shapes and colors — ranging from stuff that looks like small brown pebbles to yellow-green globs covered in bubbly nodules. The diversity is worth perusing. This website, for a company that buys and sells ambergris, has several nice photos. And Google image search turned up a plethora of pics that really capture how different one lump of ambergris can be from another.
There's a war on in America, pitting invasive ant against invasive ant in a fight to the finish. It's sort of like Alien vs. Predator, in a way, because whoever wins ... we lose. Argentine ants (the reigning champions) have wiped out native ant species in many of the environments they've invaded over the years, affecting the survival of other animals that used to feed on those ants. Worse, they have a fondness for certain agricultural pests, like aphids. In places with lots of Argentine ants, aphids do very well — and plants do worse.
But now the Argentines are facing a serious challenge in the form of Asian needle ants, another invasive species that — for reasons nobody really understands — have suddenly gone from minor player to major threat in the last decade. The big downside to Asian needle ants: They sting. They sting us. And, right now, it looks like they're winning.
John Roach tells the story at NBC News. But you can get a good idea of what this matchup looks like by checking out the work of insect photographer Alex Wild. That's his picture above, showing an Argentine ant on the left and an Asian needle ant on the right.
Here, scientists suck all the dignity out of a Jameson’s mamba — a snake capable of killing a human in just a few, painful hours. The photo is part of a story in the February issue of National Geographic, exploring the potential medical uses of venom. There are also more photos. And you will meet cobra farmers.
© Mattias Klum /National Geographic
This is a book about "doin' what comes naturally". Which is to say, sex. But what kind of sex? With whom? And to what purpose? At what point do things like gender expression, sex, reproduction, and child-rearing stop being "normal and natural" and start being something weird that humans do because we are diverse/perverted/sinful/creative (depending on your personal point of view)?
In reality, the word "natural" is mainly how we tell each other which behaviors and traits are the socially correct ones. Calling something natural is often more about specific human cultural standards than it is about what actually happens in nature. Crime Against Nature is artist Gwenn Seemel's attempt to correct that mistake. Filled with gorgeous, Klimt-esque illustrations, Seemel's book shows readers just how diverse nature can be and just how often it fails to conform to our ideas of what is normal — from girls who are bigger and tougher than boys; to boys who give birth; to boys and girls that don't have sex or reproduce at all (and don't seem to mind one bit).
The issues at play here are hefty and potentially uncomfortable, but the book itself is light, playful, and pleasantly un-preachy. It's also set up in a way that allows it to evolve with kids as their reading skills improve — pairing simple statements like "Boys can be the pretty ones" with longer but still easy-to-read paragraphs explaining, for instance, the most recent scientific theories about why male peacocks are so much more colorful than females.
Overall, the book is a great reminder that there are lots of ways to be a girl and lots of ways to be a boy. Nature is chock full of role models for every kid (and every adult). Just because you don't conform to the version of your gender that you see on TV it doesn't mean that you're defective. Last month, my husband and I navigated aisle after aisle of noxiously gendered toys, trying to find things for our niece and nephew that reflected those individual kids, rather than telling them who they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to like. In a world where even Legos come in pink boxes (with instructions for building cute little houses) and blue boxes (with instructions for building race cars), Crime Against Nature is a much-needed breath of fresh air.
You can buy a print version of Crime Against Nature from Gwenn Seemel for $32.
Alternately, you can download the digital version for free (or for a donation of your choice!)
Nicotine is one of nature's bug zappers. Seriously. Lots of plants have evolved to produce bug-repelling chemicals as part of their defense mechanisms and tobacco happens to be one of those plants.
So when city-dwelling birds use the fluffy, nicotine-soaked material from discarded cigarette butts to build their nests it might not be the unmitigated ecological disaster that most of us imagine when we hear that "birds are building nests out of discarded cigarette butts". Researchers at Mexico’s Autonomous University of Tlaxcala think the nicotine in the cigarettes might help keep chicks healthy — essentially serving as an urban substitute for the parasite-repelling plants the birds would have used in the wild.
At Culturing Science, Hannah Waters explains the idea...
But birds are actually quite fond of the chemicals found in some smelly plants, otherwise known as aromatics, from which “essential oils” are derived. Aromatic plants produce these chemicals to defend themselves against insects and other animals that would take them for food—but birds have their own use for them. Some nest-building species, including starlings and blue tits, regularly replenish their nests with fresh aromatics, and scientists hypothesize that the birds use these chemicals as parenting tools.
How would plant-derived chemicals help birds raise their chicks? It’s possible that the chemicals boost the immune systems or development of the chicks so that they survive better after they leave the nest; this is known as the “drug hypothesis.” Alternatively, the “nest protection” hypothesis suggests that the plant chemicals act as insecticides, driving parasites and other harmful insects from the nest.
Nicotine is an insecticide, although we don’t often think of it that way. Tobacco plants generate nicotine because it defends against herbivorous beetles that would otherwise devour the plants–which means a smoker’s buzz is caused by a plant’s chemical defense mechanism. Some remnants of that insecticide remains in cigarette butts left in city streets, which are then transported into bird nests.
A house sparrow stands near a cigarette butt in Mexico City. Photo Credit: © Víctor Argaez