Human beings have adapted the world around
us to suit our needs. It is our intelligence that allowed us to learn tool building, agriculture
and language and so become far advanced than any of our fellow creatures. But, that’s
not to say that some animals don’t have wonderful abilities that we can only begin
to marvel at. Thanks to the work of medical science and
nutrition, we are living longer and longer, with life expectancy increasing by 1 year,
every 5 years. We are able to survive some pretty extreme places on earth but we have
nothing on a little guy called a Tardigrade. Also known as Water Bears, or the super cute
name “Moss Piglets”, these segmented micro animals are typically 0.5 millimetres in length
and can be found in virtually every environment in the world. Their ability to survive is,
to be honest, utterly ridiculous. They are the supermen of the animal kingdom, if Superman
was a tiny 8 legged bear made of pillows. Think Canada is cold? Well these bad boys
can manage at -272°C, that’s only 1 degree above absolute zero, where everything, right
down to the nuclear level, stops moving. Of course, they don’t just put on a hat and
get on with their shopping, they are in a state of cryptobiosis – like the deep hibernation
you see in sci-fi films. And they can only last at these levels for a few minutes. But
bring the heat back up and they’ll be out and about again, getting up to mischief.
If they fancy a bit of sun after a winter snooze, then you can crank it up to 150°C
and they’ll still be knocking back the margaritas. They can take pressure 6 times what you’d
find at the bottom of our deepest ocean and can handle doses of ionising radiation so
high, that just a fraction of a percent of it would turn us into dribbling mutants while
our cells collapsed. They can even survive in space for almost 2 weeks and can survive
without food or water, for over 30 years. They would probably prefer not to though.
But if you want real immortality, then scientists are now looking at the Scarlet Jellyfish.
Its gelatinous body may not offer much protection but it has an incredible trick. If it’s
injured, it sinks to the sea floor and returns to its juvenile state, called a polyp. From
here, it regrows back to an adult jellyfish, with the slate wiped clean, effectively granting
it biological immortality. The whole process takes about 2 months. So maybe one day, if
you break a leg or two, you just have to pop back to kindergarten for a few semesters whilst
you regenerate, it might help improve your terrible handwriting as well.
When we think about light, we think about what we can see. But the visible spectrum
is actually a very small part of the wider range. And even within the visible spectrum,
our ability to separate colours is actually quite limited.
In the back of your eye, the retina, you process the light through cells called photoreceptors.
There are two main types; rods and cones. The rods process just black and white so they
work well in low-light situations and they make up most of your peripheral vision. You’ll
notice that you don’t see much colour around the edges of your vision. You’re doing it
now, aren’t you; trying to look out the side of your eyes?
In the middle of the retina, where most of the light comes in, you have a higher concentration
of cone cells. Cone cells process colour and there are three types; one for long, medium
and short wavelengths. This is all a colour is, a different wave length. Long are reds,
medium are yellow and green and short are blue.
The Mantis Shrimp has 12 different cones. If we had eyes like this, we would be able
to see huge differences between every shade. It would make arguments over what colour to
paint the bedroom last for a lifetime. It’s bad enough that there’s paint called elephant
breath, just imagine if there were 46 different shades of it.
But, oddly, shrimps’ colour perception is not much better than our own since they don’t
have the brain power to decipher all that information. Their amazing eyes just do most
of the work so their little brains don’t have to. That is not the only quirk of their
evolution though. Like their cousin, the Pistol Shrimp, they can punch so rapidly with their
claws that they have been known to smash aquarium glass.
Finally, on vision, the Pit Viper may have slightly worse colour detection than we do
but, they have evolved a new sensor pit, between the eyes and the nostrils, that allows them
to see infra-red light. This means they can spot prey and be warned of predators, no matter
how dark it gets. The benefits of technology mean that we can
enhance or replace many of our body parts. But these are man-made, these kind of mechanics
don’t occur naturally, do they? This is the Issus Leafhopper. It’s a small,
plant-sucking bug and it has evolved functioning mechanical gears. This allows it to jump extremely
rapidly. It may only move at 5 m/s but it accelerates in under a millisecond, at a force
of over 500 g’s. To give you some context, one g is the normal gravity you feel on earth.
An astronaut leaving earth experiences about 3 g.
So what is the point of these biological cogs? What purpose do they achieve? Well the power
comes from both legs and at such an incredible acceleration, that if there was a tiny difference
between them, it would be impossible to control the direction. Imagine if astronauts were
in a rocket with two engines and each were firing at different power levels; Houston,
we have a problem. So, to ensure that the Leafhoppers aren’t constantly crashing into
walls, head-butting people in bars, or accidentally committing suicide, the gears act to perfectly
synchronise their leaps. The cogwheel turtle also has an obvious gear
shape that has grown naturally, but it has no mechanical purpose. It just looks like
he’s listened to too much Marilyn Manson. Look at this guy (show image of guy in camo-trousers).
I know, where are his legs? They’re completely invisible. Now, our level of camouflage is
pretty lame, but there are creatures out there that can change shape and colour in an almost
magical way. Firstly, there is the chameleon of course,
everyone’s favourite hide and seek contestant. They can change colour and pattern in order
to send messages, such as aggression or submission, as well as camouflage. They sometimes use
it as a way of controlling the heat they absorb too.
How does it work? We used to think they just had amazing control of the colour pigments
in their skin. But it turns out to be far smarter than that. In the past couple of years
we have discovered that one of the layers of their skin is made up of a lattice of crystals
called guanine. We all contain guanine as it is a nitrogen based compound that is one
of the bases of DNA and RNA, so, pretty important stuff. Chameleons can stretch this lattice
layer so it reflects light differently. When the lattice is excited, it stretches and this
reflects longer wavelengths, such as yellows, oranges and reds. In a relaxed state, it reflects
the shorter wavelengths, the blues and greens. Their skin also has a yellow pigment which
is why their base colour is often green, since the relaxed lattice gives off blues and this
mixes with the yellow pigment to create green. A far prettier colour changing animal is the
Golden Tortoise Beetle. They look like jewellery most of the time but not only is their metallic
gold colouring pretty spectacular, they are very rare in the insect world as they can
change colour. The layers of their shells contain nano-grooves, that are normally filled
with a light red liquid that gives them their golden shine. When this liquid is drained,
the lower, darker red layers become visible so, when you watch them, they turn from gold
to red. This happens when they are agitated, and often
during sex, just like us humans, but it’s believed to have another benefit. Red shelled
bugs, like ladybirds, or ladybugs in the US, aren’t popular food for birds. So maybe
the Golden Tortoise Beetles are mimicking this to avoid being lunch. Even their gold
colour could make them hard to spot, as the bright reflection would throw off their avian
enemies. Now colour is one thing, but the mimic octopus
can transform its whole body to look like a wide range of other local creatures. It
impersonates sea snakes and jellyfish, amongst other things, so that its predators avoid
it. And it also uses impersonation to catch its own food, sometimes walking like a crab
so it can attract a mate and then pouncing before the crab realises it’s too late.
Aquatic tinder is a scary place – “Free for a drink tomorrow? Okay, but promise me
you’re not secretly an octopus?” Opossums find the world in general a scary
place, which is why they are famous for thanatosis, or “playing dead” to you and me.
But when real danger strikes, they have a nifty trick up their scruffy little sleeves.
Opossums can immunise themselves against toxins such as snake venom and plant stings. They
produce a protein called the Lethal Toxin Neutralizing Factor, LTNF for short, that
does exactly what its name suggests, neutralises toxins. For snake bites, this means they can
counteract both the part that stops your heart and the haemorrhaging part, which makes you
keep on bleeding. For humans, the current way of dealing with
a snake bite, is through anti-venoms. You have to take a sample of each specific snake’s
venom and then inject a small dose into another animal, such as a goat or a horse. Then, we
can extract a serum and use it to fight the poison when a human is bitten. This procedure
is far from perfect as you need to keep a range of different anti-venoms and often these
are only at major hospitals. And, I may be wrong, but you probably won’t get attacked
by a snake in a hospital, they’re more of an outdoorsy type.
So naturally research into this opossum protein could be very valuable as it’s already been
shown that mice can be injected with it and develop similar self-immunisation skills to
the opossum. A human ready version may not be so far away. Let’s just hope it doesn’t
make us all play dead too, the streets would be littered with people falling over every
time a car horn sounds. Self-immunisation is one thing but our next
creature takes it to a whole new level. This baby-faced little salamander is called the
Axolotl and it has an astonishing ability to regenerate whole body parts again and again.
Many other salamander types have some regeneration ability, such as their tails, but these guys
can grow back whole legs, spines, and even parts of their brain. And there’s not even
any scarring, it’s just like reloading from a save point in a video game. Lost your leg
in a bike accident? No problem, just reboot. They’re also over 1000 times more resistant
to cancer than mammals are, so they’re a pretty healthy bunch. They also never smoke
and only drink in moderation. There is actually a reason for their babyish
face. They are one of a few unique species since they exhibit neoteny. This means that
they don’t go through a change to reach adulthood, or sexual maturity to be more precise.
Most animals have a metamorphosis that changes their shape, colouring and physical characteristics.
A human adult isn’t just an inflated baby, the proportions are all different. The head
shrinks in comparison to the body, limbs lengthen, body hair grows and so on. The same is true
for most species; just look at tadpoles becoming frogs, larvae becoming flies and seahorses
growing into full sized horses. I’m not sure about that last one actually.
But the Axolotl stays the same, it just gets larger. Most salamanders leave the water and
grow fully developed lungs but the Axolotl stays in the water and that pretty frill around
its neck is its gills. They do have rudimentary lungs but they don’t really use them. Scientists
have found that you can induce a change into adulthood in axolotls, where they become terrestrial
salamanders. It’s done by injecting iodine into their thyroid gland. Whereas, us humans
are forced to grow up by being sent to our rooms and not allowed to have any ice cream.
What ability do you think ties all of these animals together?
Any guesses? Are they super-fast? Super-smart? Do they look good in denim? Are they great
at doing Sudoku? Give up?
Their special skill is electroreception. They have the ability to detect electrical fields
and to use them as a sense, much like we use hearing and vision. It’s almost exclusive
to aquatic animals since water, especially salt water, is a far better conductor than
air. But bees use electrical fields and charge
in a very unique way. Plants are usually negatively charged and bees can become very positively
charged. We’ve seen them produce voltages of 450 volts during tests. This happens because
they collide with dust particles and small molecules as they fly. The collisions knock
away electrons and leave positively charged particles stuck to the bee. Their waxy cuticles
are very well insulated, meaning they can build up a surprising amount of charge.
This creates certain benefits. Firstly, they become “stickier” since they attract the
negatively charged pollen particles. But, incredibly, they also develop a communication
with the plants and we believe they can read which flowers have recently been visited by
other bees, due to the change in their electric field. It’s basically floral advertising,
so bees can bumble around, looking in the shop windows to find what they want, without
having to go in to every store. And the electro bee magic doesn’t end there.
Uwe Greggers, a neurobiologist from the Free university of Berlin, has been studying the
famous bee dance. We’ve known about their little waggle since the 1920’s but Greggers
now thinks that the bees are actually creating a change in the electric field which other
bees read through their antennae. Right now, all we know is that they CAN do this, we don’t
know for sure if they really are. Their dance still remains a mystery.
The platypus is part of a group of egg laying mammals, called monotremes, and they are the
only creatures in the entire class known to electrolocate, aside from one species of dolphin.
These weird little duck faced otter monsters close their eyes and ears when they dive and
use this sense to detect the electric currents produced in the muscles of its prey. This
is why their heads sweep side to side, like a sensor.
They also have ankle spurs that produce venom. When you combine it with their egg laying,
it begins to seem like someone got very confused when they were putting the platypus together
and just grabbed whatever parts they could find.
With all these amazing abilities, you might be sitting there feeling jealous of the animal
kingdom and all its wonders. Why can’t we jump like lightning, heal ourselves and see
in the dark? It’s just not fair. So, to make yourself feel better, go play on your
iPad, loudly, in front of your hamster and tell him that he can’t have a go because