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Caterpillar Feud Behind Some Spicy Plants

Caterpillar Feud Behind Some Spicy Plants

Strong flavors from plant life range from mustard seed to the sharp, bitter taste of kale, and they came about as a result an evolutionary “arms race” between butterflies and certain plants.

To survive and reproduce, a species of plants called Brassicales (which includes cabbage) produced a chemical defense to repel the hungry caterpillar – and the chemical is what provides us with a variety of bitter and spicy flavors.

Brassicales developed compounds called glucosinolates over millions of years.

“Seeing the variation in the detoxification mechanisms among species and their gene copies gave us important evolutionary insights,” said Hanna Heidel-Fischer, one of the lead authors, who worked on the study at the Max Plank Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany.

The team was able to examine genetic differences from nine Brassicales genomes across 14 families, enabling them to create a detailed map of the “family tree” of this species evolution.  The map pointed the way to where changes in defense mechanisms occurred.  In parallel, scientists examined the evolutionary “family tree” of several species of butterflies.

Comparisons between evolutionary benchmarks for Brassicales and butterflies revealed three significant evolutionary signposts over 80 million years, showing where plants developed chemical defenses and butterflies responded with adaptations and counter defenses.

Lovebugs Versus Cars in Florida

If you are not a Floridian, the idea that bugs can cause actual mechanical damage to cars seems far-fetched, but residents of the Sunshine state know better. Those informed are quick to remove evidence of lovebugs off cars, campers and boats, which usually means dozens of dead bodies.

The tiny red and black insects live up to their names this time of year, and in their rush to find another bug and mate in-flight (hence their name), they die in great numbers. So many bugs means so many bug bodies, strewn across any vehicle not garaged.

Experts point out that the damage is more than unsightly; it can ruin car exteriors and mechanical parts.

The bugs seem to most commonly appear in streaks across the front of cars, either bumpers or grills. These swaths of dead insects should be removed that day, because as their bodies decompose, the fatty tissue can actually eat through the paint when exposed to the sun.

Because of where they show up, the bugs can also clog the tiny passages in radiators, and lead to overheating. In trucks, they can do major damage if they enter the refrigeration system.

Lovebugs are, however, helpful to the ecosystem and not dangerous in any other way.

Sahara-Dwelling Ants Have Secret Heat Shield

Sahara-Dwelling Ants Have Secret Heat Shield

The silver ant stands out as it marches across the desert sands, appearing as a flash of metal.  They are only able to make forays outside their burrows lasting for ten minutes at a time in the midday heat, but that is enough to survive in this harsh environment.

Scientists have long wondered how this creature can withstand temperatures beyond 150 degrees, and thrive.  Recent research shows that it’s the ants coating of hairs that protect its body from both sun and heat.

Nature’s engineering has created a system of tubular hairs with a triangular shape, the bottom or flat part of the triangle facing down against the ant’s body.  Between that flat bottom is an air pocket.

The hairs have two functions that work to protect the creature from overheating.  Their triangular shape and color are anti-reflective, reducing the penetration of sunlight and therefore heat into the body.  At the same time, the hairs grow straight up but run parallel to the surface of the ants’ bodies, with an important air pocket that allows for cooling.  The two features work together in efficient combination.

The study’s conclusions have been published in the journal Science.  The researchers are now on the path to copying this amazing system to create a “metasurface” that could withstand very high temperatures.

Trained Mice Make Airports Safer

Trained Mice Make Airports Safer

Israeli’s are airport security experts.  They have learned over decades how to keep airports and airplanes safe from explosives.  The newest technology uses the skills of mice to sniff out potential threats.

Mice are easily trained, and once they learn how to detect explosive devices, they are a low-maintenance group of workers.  These rodents are adept at any type of investigation using their sense of smell, so can be trained in finding a wide range of dangerous devices.

The Israeli company that is training and promoting mice as the next cutting edge airport technology, can turn mice into “bio-sensors.”

Airports still use X-rays and metal detectors.  If someone has a suspicious profile, luggage may be subjected to explosives trace testing.  But only a small number of people can be trace tested, which involves swabbing the luggage and testing the swab results.

Mice are far more efficient than trace testing and better at sniffing out potentially dangerous individuals.

Travelers who are concerned that little white rodents will be scurrying over their luggage need not feel dismay, however.  The mice can be placed in cages at key points and trained to scan the luggage as it goes by.


Gross But Absolutely Necessary Truths About Fruit Flies: Prevention And Cure

Gross But Absolutely Necessary Truths About Fruit Flies: Prevention And Cure

Don’t you just love the sights and smells that spring and summer bring? All that colorful foliage, all that sweet-smelling air, the sound of waves crashing on the beach, the presence of sun-tanned skin and fresh, fresh fruits once more. But with the abundance of fresh produce pouring back into the market, the gross reality of fruit flies also follow; and that’s something you probably, like most other decent homeowners, don’t love.

Getting rid of fruit flies once they’ve already entered your home and are feasting on your fruit bowl is already a sordid, distasteful issue. But get this: you may be unintentionally bringing those pesky creatures into your own home yourself. The fruits you bought may already have been contaminated by their eggs and larvae. And guess what? Even if you wash them off, fruit flies actually thrive and breed effectively in kitchen sink drains

So what to do? Short of calling your best pest control experts for total, effective extermination, this infographic from pretty much covers most of the DIY measures you can take.

In a nutshell:

  1. Add 2 tablespoons of vinegar of food-safe cleaner to a bowl of water and gently scrub your fruits in this concoction. Rinse with cool water after.
  2. Create either of two traps: roll a piece of paper into a cone and insert it into a jar filled with ½” of fruit juice; use a fork to puncture holes into the plastic wrap and use this to cover a bowl containing ½” of wine or red wine vinegar.
  3. Fill your sink ⅓ full with hot water and add ¼ scoop of oxygen bleach. Submerge a dishrag into this mixture for 10 to 20 minutes. Use the dishrag the wipe all kitchen surfaces. Let the mixture in the sink stay for a further 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, drain the sink while running hot water. Thoroughly clean the drain and stopper with the dish rag after.

Food Security At Risk Without Honey Bees?

Food Security At Risk Without Honey Bees?

In California, almond trees are under siege because they lack the workers needed to pollinate the trees.  Those workers are honeybees, who are responsible for billions of dollars worth of agricultural productivity each year.  Honeybees contribute an estimate 15 billion dollars each year to the U.S. economy.

President Obama has created a special task force from among several agencies to address this alarming decline.  The two organizations poised to lead efforts are the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.  Their job is to uncover reasons why not only honeybees, but monarch butterflies and other pollinators, are fast disappearing.

The President’s current budget calls for $50 million to go towards these efforts.  The reason for the big money is because the food security of the U.S. (and the rest of the world) is highly dependent on pollinators.  Technological advances cannot duplicate the work that bees do – and almond tree farmers know this.  Honeybees are the only creature, in fact, that pollinates almond trees.

Current research has identified several reasons for bee die-off, including loss of biodiversity and habitat, and beekeeping practices.  A type of parasitic mite has also been identified as a threat.

Island Bugs Prefer Bus Travel to Walking

Island Bugs Prefer Bus Travel to Walking

Bermuda is an island paradise, a small community surrounded by sapphire-blue waters and visited by thousands of tourists each year.  Unfortunately, thousands of roaches seem to be riding the same buses as the tourists.

Royal Coach, a popular busline on the island, is a haven for cockroaches, and natives are not happy.

“It’s unhygienic and it’s harmful to our image when you have tourists seeing roaches on the bus,” said Jahma Gibbons.  Mr. Gibbons uses the buses regularly and often sees bugs scurrying around the floors of the coaches, especially after dark.

When Mr. Gibbons complained to bus drivers, he said they, too, were disturbed by the roaches but were unable to make any progress with the authorities.

The issue has finally been addressed at the government level, when the Shadow Minister of Transport Lawrence Scott brought it up for discussion.  Mr. Scott is responsible for daily oversight of the Bermuda Transit Authority (BTA), which uses the Royal Coach service.

Mr. Scott has used videos taken by passengers to broach the topic with the Prime Minister.

“I anticipated that Minster Crockwell would put an end to this infestation. The revelation weeks later of the continuance of this infestation is disturbing on so many levels,” noted Mr. Scott.

Mr. Scott observed that perhaps the MP wanted tourists to an opportunity to have closer and more authentic interactions with the locals.

“I’m pretty sure the local inhabitants the BTA had in mind only have two legs, not six.”


The Ultimate Sacrifice of Motherhood

The Ultimate Sacrifice of Motherhood

The velvet spider gets its name from a soft coat of fur covering its body. But this creature is anything but cuddly. Its method of child-rearing is bone chilling, in fact.

The mother spider undergoes a biological process that causes its abdominal tissue to slowly liquefy, so its young can have a promising start with a protein-rich series of meals.

Scientists have known about matriphagy – or maternal suicide in service to offspring – for many years, but a recent study of the velvet spider is the first in-depth look into the mechanics of the phenomenon.

The mother’s body begins its breakdown process before its young have even hatched, through a process of degradation and liquidation of abdominal tissues. The ovaries, however, remain intact to the very last – probably in order to give birth to a second brood if something goes wrong with the first.

“Our work shows that the process [of abdominal tissue degradation] is gradual, possibly in order to allow the female to produce another clutch of eggs in case something goes wrong with the first one,” said Mor Solomon, a study leader from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

After about two weeks, the spider’s babies pierce the mother’s abdominal wall and begin sucking out her innards.

The velvet spider is native to southern European countries and also found in Africa. Theorists believe the extreme behavior is a by-product of surviving harsh desert environments.


Fungus Taking a Bite out of Avocados

Fungus Taking a Bite out of Avocados

Avocadoes are Florida’s second largest crop, second only to citrus as one of the main agricultural exports of this agricultural powerhouse.  And like citrus, they are being threatened by a difficult to treat disease.

The culprit is the redbay ambrosia beetle, an inadvertent import from Thailand that came in a shipment of wood over a decade ago.  The beetle attacks the roots of trees, and spreads easily from tree to tree within avocado groves. The ambrosia beetle carries a fungus that that leads to certain death for the tree.

Unabated, the beetle is likely to spread to other avocado producing states, such as Texas and California.  For the state of Florida, annual avocado production is worth $20 to 30 million, and numerous jobs.

To defeat the scourge, agricultural experts at Florida State University have tried two methods.  Trained dogs can sniff at the fungus at ground level, which helps detect infection.  From the air, FSU is turning to drones.  The flying detection can spot an unhealthy tree, which shows signs of thinning at its crown.

Avocado trees are now dying at a rate of about 1% loss per year in Florida due to the fungus.


New Spidey Skill Revealed

New Spidey Skill Revealed

Although they engender fear, spiders are a class of arthropods that are not only helpful to humans, but also possess a host of amazing skills.  The latest research shows that, in addition to web-spinning and poison fangs, these eight-legged wonders have another superpower.

They can, using five different techniques, essentially walk on water.

Having a lot of legs helps in this talent, but mostly it’s body posture and water repellent feet that allow arachnids to negotiate puddles and streams.  Their first method is sailing, which entails moving the whole abdomen upside down so it juts straight into the air.  This way, their main bulk catches the wind and they glide through across waterways.

The second technique takes advantage of spider threads, extruded from the posterior and used to catch the wind.  Research has shown that this method can result in traveling nearly 20 miles in one day.

Anchoring also uses silk, but in this approach the spider uses a strand of web to catch onto the surface of the water.

Speed walking is useful because spider’s feet are water repellent, thus they can scurry over short, watery distances.

Lastly, a spider is able to fake death and go into an absolutely frozen state.  Their feet allow them to glide across moving water without sinking.

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