Tag Archives: adaptation

What it feels like for a sperm, or how to get around when you are really, really small

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgWe don’t usually learn about the physics of squishy things. Physics textbooks are filled with solid objects such as incompressible blocks, inclined planes and inelastic strings. This is the rigid world that obeys Newton’s laws of motion. Here, squishiness is an exception and drag is routinely ignored. The only elastic object around is a spring, and it is perfectly elastic. It will never bend too far and lose its shape. But any child who has played vigorously with a Slinky has stretched past the limits of this Newtonian world.

Mr. Newton's not going to like that..

Whereas the rigid universe is notable for its strict adherence to a few basic principles, the squishy universe is a different beast altogether.

I was recently out paddling, and noticed that as you move the paddle through water, tiny whirlpools begin to develop along its sides. The whirlpools grow in size, become self-sustaining, and break off and float away. Eventually they die out, as they lose their energy to the fluid around them.

You could also watch the spirals and vortices created by rising smoke. Or notice the strange shapes made by the wind as it sweeps through the clouds. It’s as if fluids have a life of their own, often wondrous and beautiful, and other times surprising and counter-intuitive.

The brief and wondrous life of vortices

But the motion of fluids is notoriously hard to predict. It’s so difficult that if you can solve the equations of fluid flow, there are people willing to offer you a million dollars. The difficulty comes from a mathematical property of the equations known as non-linearity. Simply put, a non-linear system is one where a small change can lead to a large effect. The same thing that makes these equations difficult to solve is also what makes fluids surprising and interesting. It’s why the weather is so hard to predict – tiny changes in local temperatures and pressures can have a large effect.

At this point, most reasonable people would throw their arms up in despair. But physicists are an unreasonably persistent bunch, and when faced with an equation that they can’t solve, they try to get some insight by looking at what happens at extremes. For example, thick and syrupy fluids like glycerine behave in a surprisingly orderly fashion. Take a look at this video (watch through to the end, it’s worth it).

I bet you’ve never seen a fluid do that before. So what’s going on here? And what does this have to do with swimming sperm?

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Filed under Biology, Physics, Science

Honeybees have handy knees!

A few days ago, I was walking home and passed by a bush of white flowers in full bloom. They looked pretty spectacular lit by the afternoon sun. On taking a closer look, I realized that what I thought were flowers were actually flower bunches, each of them made up of hundreds of tiny flowers. And on each bunch, there was a single honeybee zipping about from flower to flower.

Watching these bees through my camera lens, I could see something quite interesting. As they landed on the flowers, they would kick up grains of pollen that would rise up like dust. And then the bees would do something quite odd – they would fiddle with their knees. I zoomed in to see what was going on.

There’s something quite peculiar about this photograph. What’s that fleshy appendage stuck to the knees of the honeybee? It looks, to me, somewhat like a human ear. And even stranger – the bees don’t have it when they arrive on the flower. But in a few minutes this thing begins to grow, and in about 15 minutes it’s as engorged as you see in the picture.

In addition to collecting nectar from flowers, honey bees also collect pollen. And what you’re seeing in these photographs is an incredible adaptation that helps bees go about their business of collection. It’s called a pollen basket, and here is how it works.

Bees are hairy creatures, and they get covered in pollen. They rake themselves clean with combs that are built into the inner surfaces of their hind legs. Next, they move all this collected pollen to a joint between the segments of their legs – their knees. This joint functions as a pollen press, and it squeezes the pollen into handy little pellets. But these pellets need to be stored somehow. And so, here is the next adaptation. The outer surface of the hind leg is concave, and it is covered in many small hairs. It’s a basket! This is where the bees store these compressed pollen pellets, and that’s what you see in the above picture. The basket is actually transparent, and so the fleshy color in the pictures above is the color of pollen.

The weird thing about this is that the basket is open at the bottom. So why doesn’t the pollen fall out? That’s because there’s a single strong hair that prevents this from happening, which functions as the lid of the basket.

Although I couldn’t quite make out the details, watching this elaborate packing process through the zoom lens was quite mesmerizing and I was merrily snapping away. The bees didn’t seem to notice me at all, but I realized that I was getting odd looks from my neighbors, so I decided it was time to take my leave.

Buzzing off..


Filed under Biology, Fun