Daniel Goldman and Daria Monaenkova
Fire ants are known for their supreme tunneling abilities.
James O'Hanlon, Macquarie University
Animals and insects that resemble flowers deceive in a unique and powerful way, since who could resist a beautiful flower?
In this case, the "orchid" is actually a predatory insect -- the orchid mantis. Researcher James O'Hanlon of Macquarie University and colleagues recently studied the unusual insects in Malaysia.
"Their bright floral colors and petal-shaped legs create a tantalizing lure for insects," O'Hanlon told Discovery News, adding that they attract flying insect pollinators more than actual flowers in the region do. "So it seems that orchid mantises not only look like flowers, but they may also even beat flowers at their own game as they deceptively attract their unsuspecting prey."
The star-nosed mole is in the record books for a few different reasons. First, it is the world's fastest eating mammal. Second, its nose looks like a coral-colored flower, allowing the mole to poke out of the ground as though it were a plant.
Finally, the flower or "star" on its nose has the highest density of nerve endings known in any mammalian skin, according to biologist Diana Bautista of the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues. By studying the nose, they are hoping to identify genes that may mediate touch and pain, leading to better treatments for chronic pain conditions.
Fred Hsu, Wikimedia Commons
Flower hat jellyfish, native to the West Pacific off the coast of southern Japan, sport translucent, pinstriped bells that make up this marine animal's "flower."
The tentacles below can sting, and are used to catch small fish. Humans who have the misfortune of encountering the flower hat jellyfish can also be stung, and often suffer a nasty rash as a result.
Raimond Spekking, Wikimedia Commons
The term anthozoa comes from the Greek words for flower and animals. These flower animals are so-called because their earliest stage of growth takes on a floral appearance.
Relatives of anthozoa were in existence possibly as early as 570 million years ago, putting those ancestors well ahead of the dinosaurs. They are among the oldest known types of animals on Earth.
Yuvalif, Wikimedia Commons
The devil's flower mantis has three distinct looks. It can, as this image shows, appear as its true insect self. Here, one was snapped marching on a car tire. But among plants, the other two looks become more evident.
Imagine this mantis sitting on a green leaf. It would seem to be an extension of that leaf, or just blend in with the green. When the insect lifts its forelegs, however, bright colors are revealed. In this pose, it resembles an orchid. To other devil's flower mantises, the pose signals a threat, making the aggressor look large and mean.
The High Fin Sperm Whale, Wikimedia Commons
"Lionfish" refers to an entire genus of venomous marine fish. They sometimes resemble floating tropical flowers, but the appendages are actually spiky and full of venom.
Flowers display colors, in part, to attract pollinators. Color for lionfish is meant to do just the opposite: repel others. Like a bright red stop sign, the color is meant to gain attention. The different colors tell would-be predators that the lionfish can be dangerous.
Darius Bau, Wikimedia Commons
When wrapped around a twig, the pale tussock caterpillar could easily be mistaken for an unusual bright yellow-hued flower. The coloration, as for the lionfish, warns others not to eat it.
The caterpillar's color and appearance also functions as a flower disguise. Once the caterpillar turns into a moth, all of that psychedelic color fades away, leaving behind beige and brown tones.
BerndH, Wikimedia Commons
Animals and insects aren't the only ones that fool others with their looks. Flowers also sometimes take on the appearance of animals.
The bird of paradise is a classic example. But nature seems to be teasing us with the monkey orchid. From a distance, this flower looks just like a lavender and white orchid. Up close, however, the flower resembles a monkey, complete with a head, long arms and a tail.
Orchi, Wikimedia Commons
With Halloween around the corner, special mention goes to the orchid Dracula gigas. While it may not look like Dracula, it does take on human-like features.
From above, as seen in this photo, it appears to have eyes, a nose, a mouth and quite a dramatic hairdo.
Nature’s top excavator may be the red fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, the invasive, stinging creature that has taken over the lower third of the United States with its intricate mounds, tunnels and homes built with precision in nearly any kind of soil.
The fire ant’s digging prowess taps the same concepts behind kids’ building blocks, according to a new study that looks at the micro-mechanics of their ability to move giant particles in tiny spaces.
“They love to dig,” said Daniel Goldman, physics professor at Georgia Tech and an author on the paper in this week’s Journal of Experimental Biology.
“You can get them to dig in anything. When the particles are big, they grab a grain and remove it. It’s not a trivial task. They have to carefully to hold the particle in their jaw. They have another mode of digging where they can rake and scrape the soil into a pellet, and use their mandibles and antennae in a new way to help shape that pellet.”
Goldman and his colleagues conducted several lab experiments with fire ants using different size particles of sand and tiny glass pellets. They also took X-rays of the ants’ tunnels and found something surprising. The ants carefully constructed the tunnel walls like Jenga blocks, each particle precariously supporting the one on top. When the researchers probed the tunnels with a metal rod, they collapsed, just like the kids’ wooden tower.
“They are doing some nice manipulations that we don’t understand yet,” Goldman told Discovery News.
The research team – which included lead author and postdoctoral researcher Daria Monaenkova – also noticed that the ants built tunnels faster in coarser soils, and didn’t do as well in extremely dry soil as compared to wetter soil.
Stephen Taber, biology professor at Saginaw Valley State University and author of the book "Fire Ants," wondered if the x-rays had any biological effect on the ants' tunneling abilities. He said the biggest ant nests he's ever seen were in swampy soils of Texas.
"They resembled the soils of their swampy South American home in the Pantanal more than the other soils I found fire ants in," Taber said.
"The soil they tunneled in where nests were large was sandy to clayey."
Since arriving from South America in the 1930s, fire ants have spread throughout the southern United States. In recent years, they have spread westward to Texas, New Mexico and Southern California, occupying an estimated 300 million acres of territory. Their massive colonies contain several hundred thousand individuals, and extend several feet below ground.
Their colonies are considered a “superorganism,” a group of individuals that acts as a single creature. Part of their success is linked to their incredible tunneling abilities, Goldman says, and their ability to squeeze past each other in tiny spaces while carrying big chunks of soil.
Goldman believes studying fire ants could actually lead to some practical applications when it come to designing search-and-rescue robots sent into rescue people from collapsed buildings or tunnels.
“Swarming robots that operate in crowded environments are going to need to know how to excavate a disaster site,” he said. “You might learn some things from how the master excavators are doing it.”