Archive for January 17th, 2008

Parasitic Wonka Worms!!!

berry-ant.jpg
Steve Yanoviak/Univ. of Arkansas

Proving once again that nature can be very strange and diabolical:

To perpetuate its life cycle, a newly identified parasite morphs its ant victims to such a degree that the infected ants resemble red, ripe juicy berries that birds are more inclined to pick, according to the University of California at Berkeley.

Eggs from the parasite then pass through the unwitting birds when they defecate. Ants consume the waste, become infected, and the whole cycle starts anew.

The transformation from black ant to red berry form represents the world’s first known example of fruit mimicry caused by a parasite. In this case, the victimizer is a parasitic nematode, or roundworm.

(…)

Yanoviak and his team observed that infected ants hold their berry-ish bellies in an elevated position, which is an alarm posture in ants. Hauling around such a blob also makes the ants sluggish. Like ripe fruit, the gaster easily breaks off, so the combination of effects makes the “berry” easy for birds to pluck.

Normally, birds avoid consuming ants because they taste awful, they sting, have spines and possess a hard exoskeleton. The effort simply isn’t worth the minimal nutrition ants could provide for birds in high canopy tropical forests ranging from Central America to the lowland Amazon, where the ant-to-berry phenomenon plays out on a daily basis.

The parasites even seem to make the ants more palatable to the birds, which think they are eating a berry from a Hyeronima tree, or one of the many other types of red berries found in tropical forests of the region.

“Infected ants seem to produce much less nasty pheromones,” explained Yanoviak, who co-authored a paper on the new parasite with colleague George Poinar Jr., the world’s authority on nematodes that parasitize insects….

(…)

Steve Heydon, curator and collections manager at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California at Davis, told Discovery News that “quite a few parasites do weird things to their hosts.”

He shared how one trematode parasite actually exerts a sort of mind control over certain ants, causing the ants to climb up grass stalks, clamp on and basically wait to be eaten. The consumer then poops and starts the trematode’s life cycle again.

An even more unusual process affects snails, according to Heydon.

“Parasites can infect certain snails, causing their eyestalks to change color, swell and snap off,” he said.

Like the bug in a Mexican jumping bean, the parasites in the snail eyes then cause the eyes “to wiggle, which attracts fish that eat them, allowing the parasite to move into its next life cycle stage.”

You know, that worm’s life cycle kinda reminds me of something…

1 comment January 17th, 2008 at 10:51pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Science,Weirdness

Quotes Of The Day

Today’s two-fer is from last week’s Wild Side blog/column by Olivia Judson.

(Disclaimer: Ms. Judson was in the same dorm complex my freshman year, and I thought she was very sweet. So the selection process may not be entirely unbiased today. Take it up with my ombudsman.)

The first quote is actually from Alfred Russel Wallace, who Darwin beat to the punch on publishing a theory of evolution:

If this [scientific investigation of tropical ecosystems] is not done, future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.

Still timely after 145 years.

The second quote is just alarming on multiple levels:

Every year, then, most blue tits die.

Egad.

January 17th, 2008 at 09:24pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Environment,Quotes,Science

Hell’s Getting A Bit Nippy…

Chris Matthews actually apologized for saying that Hillary was only elected to the Senate because Bill messed around. Not so much for all the other terrible things he’s said about her and other women, though – which is why the firepits are still bubbling and churning away.

Now, if Rush were to get fired for his repulsive “spade” and “hoe” digs at Obama, then Hell’d be looking a lot like Lambeau Field this weekend.

January 17th, 2008 at 07:54pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Clinton,Media,Politics,Racism,Sexism,Wankers

Hello-And-Goodbye Kitty

I swear I am not making this up. (click on images for larger and less pixelated view)

What kind of person would carry a Hello Kitty assault rifle?

hellovader.jpg

On second thought, don’t answer that.

(h/t Engadget)

1 comment January 17th, 2008 at 06:58pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Weirdness

My New Phrase

Those of you in the business world should appreciate this one: Coyote Meeting.

It refers to a meeting so endless, so soul-destroying and pointless and godawful, that you would gladly gnaw off your own arm to get away.

Not that I’ve ever been in one, of course, but I can certainly see how they might happen…

6 comments January 17th, 2008 at 11:21am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Uncategorized

Monkeys + Robots = AWESOME

How cool is this?

In preparing for the experiment, Idoya was trained to walk upright on a treadmill. She held onto a bar with her hands and got treats — raisins and Cheerios — as she walked at different speeds, forward and backward, for 15 minutes a day, 3 days a week, for 2 months.

Meanwhile, electrodes implanted in the so-called leg area of Idoya’s brain recorded the activity of 250 to 300 neurons that fired while she walked. Some neurons became active when her ankle, knee and hip joints moved. Others responded when her feet touched the ground. And some fired in anticipation of her movements.

To obtain a detailed model of Idoya’s leg movements, the researchers also painted her ankle, knee and hip joints with fluorescent stage makeup and, using a special high speed camera, captured her movements on video.

The video and brain cell activity were then combined and translated into a format that a computer could read. This format is able to predict with 90 percent accuracy all permutations of Idoya’s leg movements three to four seconds before the movement takes place.

On Thursday, an alert and ready-to-work Idoya stepped onto her treadmill and began walking at a steady pace with electrodes implanted in her brain. Her walking pattern and brain signals were collected, fed into the computer and transmitted over a high-speed Internet link to a robot in Kyoto, Japan.

The robot, called CB for Computational Brain, has the same range of motion as a human. It can dance, squat, point and “feel” the ground with sensors embedded in its feet, and it will not fall over when shoved.

Designed by the Sarcos Research Corporation in Salt Lake City, the robot was chosen for the experiment because of its extraordinary ability to mimic human locomotion.

As Idoya’s brain signals streamed into CB’s actuators, her job was to make the robot walk steadily via her own brain activity. She could see the back of CB’s legs on an enormous movie screen in front of her treadmill and received treats if she could make the robot’s joints move in synchrony with her own leg movements.

As Idoya walked, CB walked at exactly the same pace. Recordings from Idoya’s brain revealed that her neurons fired each time she took a step and each time the robot took a step.

(…)

An hour into the experiment, the researchers pulled a trick on Idoya. They stopped her treadmill. Everyone held their breath. What would Idoya do?

“Her eyes remained focused like crazy on CB’s legs,” Dr. Nicolelis said.

She got treats galore. The robot kept walking. And the researchers were jubilant.

When Idoya’s brain signals made the robot walk, some neurons in her brain controlled her own legs, whereas others controlled the robot’s legs. The latter set of neurons had basically become attuned to the robot’s legs after about an hour of practice and visual feedback.

Idoya cannot talk but her brain signals revealed that after the treadmill stopped, she was able to make CB walk for three full minutes by attending to its legs and not her own.

Vision is a powerful, dominant signal in the brain, Dr. Nicolelis said. Idoya’s motor cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, had started to absorb the representation of the robot’s legs — as if they belonged to Idoya herself.

Now if they can just figure out a way to work ninjas, pirates, and Vikings into the experiment, it will be The Most Awesome Thing Ever.

3 comments January 17th, 2008 at 07:21am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science,Technology


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