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High-tech Amazon spider amazes scientists

The tiny creature’s design surpasses human engineering

A slingshot spider Georgia Institute of Technology/Photo by Lawrence E. Reeves

High-tech Amazon spider amazes scientists

A spider 1 millimeter long can stretch its web back and fling it forward at an acceleration rate 100 times that of a cheetah. The snapping action, which allows it to surprise unsuspecting flies and mosquitoes as they cruise by, relies on a silk spring mechanism that surpasses anything humans have designed, scientists say.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology traveled deep into the Amazon rainforest of Peru to study how the slingshot spiders work. When the arachnids release the tension on their webs, they snap them forward at a speed of 13 feet per second and withstand 130 G’s of force—10 times what a fighter pilot can tolerate before blacking out. The slingshot action likely “gives the spider the advantage of speed and surprise” needed to catch and maybe even stun its much bigger flying prey, researcher Symone Alexander said.

In the study, published in Current Biology in August, the researchers used ultrafast cameras to record the spider’s movement. They discovered the spider weaves a new, cone-shaped web every night with a tension line at its center. While the spider walks along the tension line, it produces a small bundle of silk. It stretches the silk with its front legs and tightens the tension line while clutching the web with its hind legs, creating a sophisticated 3D spring. When an insect gets within range, the spider moves backward with the silk wad to increase the tension, like pulling back a slingshot. When the prey gets close enough, the spider releases the bundle that controls how much the web moves.

The researchers believe the spider can hold a ready-to-launch pose for hours because, instead of using its leg muscles to jump, it uses a latch mechanism to release its spring and launch itself into the air.

After a successful catch, the spider quickly wraps its prey in silk. If it misses, it pulls the tension line and resets the web launcher.

“If you compare this natural silk spring to carbon nanotubes or other human-made materials in terms of power density or energy density, it is orders of magnitude more powerful,” researcher Saad Bhamla said.

He and his colleagues hope the discovery will eventually help scientists design sources of power for tiny robots and other devices. “Nature does a lot of things better than humans can do, and nature has been doing them for much longer,” Alexander said. For Christians, that understanding points to the wisdom of the God who designed nature.

A Recompose vessel

A Recompose vessel Facebook/Recompose

Returning to dust

In 2019, Washington became the first and, so far, the only state to legalize composting human bodies indoors. Starting next month, a company called Recompose plans to offer, according to its delicate phrasing, “natural organic reduction.”

The process involves putting a body inside an 8-by-4-foot steel cylinder with wood chips, straw, and alfalfa for 30 days while microbes break down the remains. The organic material then goes into a curing bin to cool and dry out, resulting in about a cubic yard of fertile soil.

The company touts its new service as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional burial or cremation, claiming each body composted keeps 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere and requires one-eighth of the energy.

“People want their deaths to mean something. They want their bodies to be useful in some way,” Nora Menkin, executive director of the People’s Memorial Association, a Seattle-based funeral home, told the internet publication One Zero.

Doug Potter, a professor at the Southern Evangelical Bible Seminary & Bible College, noted the process may raise concerns for Christians, who believe it’s important to treat the human body with respect. Though composting, like cremation, is not inherently sinful, he said, traditional burial “preserves the sanctity of the body and symbolizes our hope of resurrection.” —J.B.

A Recompose vessel

A Recompose vessel Facebook/Recompose

Visualizing Augustus

Daniel Voshart, a Canadian cinematographer, spent the long, quiet days of the coronavirus lockdown bringing history to life. He used neural net computing to create realistic digital representations of Roman emperors’ faces.

He studied 800 busts of 54 Roman emperors who reigned between 27 B.C. and A.D. 285, relying, when possible, on sculptures made while the ruler lived. He then aged them to the year of their death but before any major illness set in. He also included information from coins, other artwork, and historical records, he said. The computer created algorithms to produce realistic images of each emperor.

In addition to using a bust of Nero, Voshart incorporated a 1928 paper published in Studies in Philology about biographies of Roman emperors. It described the emperor, who reigned from A.D. 54-68, as having a rounded jaw, freckled and repulsive skin, and an agreeable rather than attractive face, Live Science reported. According to church tradition, Nero put the Apostles Paul and Peter to death. Voshart also digitally reconstructed likenesses of Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, who reigned during Jesus’ time on Earth. —J.B.

A Recompose vessel

A Recompose vessel Facebook/Recompose

Mysterious red blob

Ron Newberry, a resident of Whidbey Island just north of Seattle, set out to go salmon fishing on Aug. 29. Instead, he found a 3.5-feet-long red blob with lots of arms lying on the rocky shore.

The waves soon washed the dead animal back into Puget Sound. But Newberry posted a picture of the creature on Facebook, and experts from across the country began trying to identify it. “I confess my first thought was ‘something from outer space,’” Megan Dethier, director of the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs, told the Whidbey News-Times.

Most experts thought the creature was a seven-armed octopus, not generally found as far north as Washington. Despite its name, this octopus has eight arms. But the male hides one arm inside a sac near its eye and uses it to transfer sperm to a mate. The seven-armed octopus swims all the time, much like the jellyfish on which it likes to dine, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Scientific Reports. The male’s head averages only about 4 inches long, while the female’s is 27 inches, Live Science reported. J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a World Journalism Institute graduate. She covers science and intelligent design for WORLD and is a clinical psychologist. Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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