Most Biology Textbooks Overlook The Most Abundant Animals on The Planet


Insects are kind of a big deal. As many as 30 million species make up this ecologically important class, only a fraction of which we know about. Around 80 percent of all animal species are insects. Estimates put their numbers in the quintillions.

Not that you’d easily know that if you opened a random introductory biology textbook – these are much more likely to give vertebrates a starring role. So it might be time to put the spineless members of the animal kingdom back into the spotlight.

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A recent survey of 88 popular entry-level texts published between 1906 and 2016 found insects just weren’t filling the pages in a way that reflected not just their abundance, but their significance in ecology.

“Insects are essential to every terrestrial ecosystem and play important roles in everything from agriculture to human health,” says North Carolina State University biologist Jennifer Landin.

“But our analysis shows that students taking entry-level biology courses are learning virtually nothing about them.”

Most surprisingly, this deficit has been on the increase since the 1960s. Our interest in the humble bug just isn’t what it used to be. And that’s a problem, according to the researchers.

“We do not exist apart from nature,” Landin says.

“Humans and insects, for example, have direct effects on each other – and that is no longer clearly presented in the teaching literature.”

To explore how generalised biology textbooks have changed over time with respect to their choice of content, the researchers combed their selection of textbooks for words, figures and illustrations that featured some kind of insect.

These were then recorded against the book’s year of publication, revealing a gentle slide in the percentage of textbook pages dedicated to insect anatomy, lives, and relationships.

A century ago, you could expect an average of 32.6 pages to be devoted to something insecty. That’s about 8.8 percent of the total.

Fast forward to books published between 2000 and 2016, that number drops to 5.67 pages. A miserable 0.59 percent.

As if that’s not bad enough, the team found a huge imbalance in the categories of these super important arthropods.

Orthoptera – such as locusts and crickets – were overrepresented. They make up just 2 percent of insect species, but occupied as much as a quarter of the insect real estate.

Beetles, of the order Coleoptera, also represented about a quarter of those pages, in spite of making up a whopping 37 percent of all species of insect.

You could argue that big numbers don’t necessarily make for an important group of animals. There’s only so many pages in a textbook, and only so much time to study them all – finding the right representatives requires a little more nuance.

But in addition to a quantitative assessment, the team examined the kinds of words used to describe insects, and assigned them an emotive value as viewed by a relative entomological novice.

So while ‘pest’ might well be fairly denotative to an expert, to the average first-year student this would make an insect look less like the hero of the story.

Texts published prior to the 1960s contained 8.7 times more descriptors, of both a positive and negative variety, than those published after 2000.

However, those words tended to be a little more positive. We might not be as colourful in our descriptions today, but the occasional connotations appear to be less in the insect’s favour.

So not only are we talking about ants, moths, and flies less, we’re less likely to be flattering in our descriptors.

“We saw societal shifts in the groups of insects addressed in texts; butterflies were covered more when butterfly collecting was a popular hobby, mosquitoes and other flies were overwhelming in books when insect-transmitted disease was rampant,” says Landin.

This social relevance is to be expected in textbook trends. But far from becoming less important, a decline in insect numbers thanks to climate change is a concern we face in future decades.

We want our future biologists to be not just informed on 80 percent of all animal species, we want them to be excited by them.

It’s time to back the bugs!

Meet the Cyborg Beetles, Real Insects That Are Controlled Like Robots


The future is crawling towards us on six legs. Motherboard traveled to Singapore to meet with Dr. Hirotaka Sato, an aerospace engineer at Nanyang Technological University. Sato and his team are turning live beetles into cyborgs by electrically controlling their motor functions.

Having studied the beetles’ muscle configuration, neural networks, and leg control, the researchers wired the insects so that they could be controlled by a switchboard. In doing so, the researchers could manipulate the different walking gaits, speeds, flying direction, and other forms of motion.

Essentially, the beetles became like robots with no control over their own motor functioning. Interestingly, though the researchers control the beetles through wiring, their energy still comes naturally from the food they eat. Hence, the muscles are driven by the insects themselves, but they have no willpower over how their muscles move.

Moreover, turning beetles into cyborgs seems to not be that harmful to them. Their natural lifespan is three to six months, and even with the researchers’ interference, they can survive for several months. According to the researchers, a beetle has never died right after stimulation.

And while this technology may seem crazy, the implications are very practical. Sensors that detect heat, and hence people, can be placed on the beetles, so that they can be manipulated to move toward a person. This can be helpful when searching for someone, such as in a criminal investigation or finding a terrorist.

The researchers are very serious about ensuring that whatever the applications are for this technology, that they go toward peaceful purposes. And who knows how far it could go? With this much progress manipulating the motor functions of creatures as small as beetles, perhaps it can be used for even bigger animal targets.

Watch the video. URL:https://youtu.be/tgLjhT7S15U

Meet the Cyborg Beetles, Real Insects That Are Controlled Like Robots


The future is crawling towards us on six legs. Motherboard traveled to Singapore to meet with Dr. Hirotaka Sato, an aerospace engineer at Nanyang Technological University. Sato and his team are turning live beetles into cyborgs by electrically controlling their motor functions.

Having studied the beetles’ muscle configuration, neural networks, and leg control, the researchers wired the insects so that they could be controlled by a switchboard. In doing so, the researchers could manipulate the different walking gaits, speeds, flying direction, and other forms of motion.

Essentially, the beetles became like robots with no control over their own motor functioning. Interestingly, though the researchers control the beetles through wiring, their energy still comes naturally from the food they eat. Hence, the muscles are driven by the insects themselves, but they have no willpower over how their muscles move.

Moreover, turning beetles into cyborgs seems to not be that harmful to them. Their natural lifespan is three to six months, and even with the researchers’ interference, they can survive for several months. According to the researchers, a beetle has never died right after stimulation.

And while this technology may seem crazy, the implications are very practical. Sensors that detect heat, and hence people, can be placed on the beetles, so that they can be manipulated to move toward a person. This can be helpful when searching for someone, such as in a criminal investigation or finding a terrorist.

The researchers are very serious about ensuring that whatever the applications are for this technology, that they go toward peaceful purposes. And who knows how far it could go? With this much progress manipulating the motor functions of creatures as small as beetles, perhaps it can be used for even bigger animal targets.

Insects may have had basic ‘consciousness’ more than 500 million years ago


Insects are conscious, egocentric beings, argue Australian scientists in a new paper that suggests basic consciousness may have first evolved in insects in the Cambrian Period.

Key points

  • Insects have capacity for basic consciousness known as subjective experience
  • Insect brain works in a similar way to human midbrain, which is responsible for subjective experience
  • Cambrian insects would have needed core brain systems to support foraging and hunting argue researchers

Recent neuroimaging suggests insects are fully hardwired for both consciousness and egocentric behaviour, providing strong evidence that organisms from flies to fleas exhibit both.

Consciousness comes in many levels, and insects have the capacity for at least one basic form: subjective experience, the researchers argue in paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“When you and I are hungry, we don’t just move towards food; our hunger also has a particular feeling associated with it,” said the paper’s co-author Dr Colin Klein a philosopher at Macquarie University.

“An organism has subjective experience if its mental states feel like something when they happen.”

When organisms began to move freely in their environment, they faced many new challenges … that required a new kind of integrated modelling, and that’s where we think consciousness arose.

Dr Colin Klein

Dr Klein and his colleague biological scientist Associate Professor Andrew Barron, also of Macquarie University, studied detailed neuroimaging reports concerning insect brains.

They then compared the structure of such brains with those of humans and other animals.

Their work focused on the midbrain, a set of evolutionarily ancient structures that are surrounded by the grey folds of the cortex. The arrangement, they said, looks a bit like the flesh of a peach surrounding the pit.

“In humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone and/or spinal column) there is good evidence that the midbrain is responsible for the basic capacity for subjective experience,” said Dr Klein.

“The cortex determines much about what we are aware of, but the midbrain is what makes us capable of being aware in the first place. It does so, very crudely, by forming a single integrated picture of the world from a single point of view.”

Portions of insect brains work in a similar way to the midbrain in humans, performing the same sort of modelling of the world, said the authors.

As for being egocentric, there is now compelling evidence that insects display selective attention to their processing of the world, said Dr Barron.

“They don’t pay attention to all sensory input equally,” he explained. “The insect selectively pays attention to what is most relevant to it at the moment, hence [it is] egocentric.”

The term “insect” is a broad one, generally referring to any small animal that has six legs, a body formed of three parts, and may have wings. Since diverse species under this umbrella term have widely varying sensory systems and ways of life, the authors expect that to be reflected in their conscious lives.

Not all living things are thought to have consciousness, though. Plants, for example, do not have the necessary structures for it. Jellyfish and nematodes (certain unsegmented worms, such as roundworms) do not have such hardwiring either.

Origins of consciousness traced back to Cambrian

Dr Barron and Dr Klein believe the origins of consciousness date to at least the Cambrian, which began around 540 million years ago.

“When organisms began to move freely in their environment, they faced many new challenges,” Dr Klein explained.

“They had to decide where to go next. They had to prioritise their needs. They had to interpret sensory information that changed as a consequence of their motion. That required a new kind of integrated modelling, and that’s where we think consciousness arose.”

Bruno van Swinderen is an associate professor at the University of Queensland and is a leader in the field of insect neurobiology.

Dr Van Swinderen believes one of the most important points of the new paper is the realisation that understanding the evolution of consciousness will not come from looking for intelligent behaviour in other animals, but rather from understanding the fundamental mechanisms that support subjective awareness and selective attention, which he said “we now know insects have.”

“Insects have traditionally been viewed as mini robots, responding to environmental stimuli in a rather inflexible way,” said Dr Van Swinderen.

“In contrast, Barron and Klein suggest that it is likely that some of the fundamental underpinnings of consciousness have already been solved in even the smallest brains.”

Completely understanding what’s on the mind of an insect is still impossible, however.

As Dr Klein said: “In some sense it’s very hard to understand what other people experience, much less animals! But we think that research can reveal much about the contents of insects’ experience, as well as the similarities and differences in the way that these experiences are structured.”

 

Spiders’ Electrostatic Charge Helps Them Trap Prey In Their Webs, New Study Shows.


Spiders may trap unsuspecting prey by sucking them in using electrostatic attraction, new research suggests.

The new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that the spiderweb of the common cross spider (or garden spider) is attracted to electrically charged objects, with the sticky threads of spider silk arcing toward each other in response to a charged object.

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Stroke of inspiration

Some flying insects, as they flap their wings, for instance, generate an electric charge. As such the new results suggest that charged bugs such as honeybees could be sucked into, and then trapped by, a spider’s sticky web as they fly by. [Ewww! Photos of Bat-Eating Spiders]

“Charged insects can produce a deformation of a spiderweb,” said study co-author Victor Ortega-Jimenez, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Any insect that is flying very close to the spiderweb can be trapped by the electrostatic effect.”

Ortega-Jimenez noticed this phenomenon while playing with a simple toy with his daughter: an electrostatically charged “magic wand” that can cause objects such as paper to levitate. While doing so, they decided to charge up a few insects and even brought it near a spiderweb that was nearby, which deformed in response to the magic wand

He also knew that honeybees generate an electric charge of up to 200 volts as they flap their wings, which may help them pick up pollen from negatively charged flowers. Several studies have revealed that spiderwebs can dramatically deform in response to prey. So he wondered whether spiderwebs could use electrostatic attraction to lure prey.

Charging webs

To find out, Ortega-Jimenez and his colleague Robert Dudley gathered spiderwebs of the cross spider (Araneus diadematus) from around the UC Berkeley campus. Back at the lab, they studied how the spiderwebs responded to electrically charged objects.

They found that the web and positively charged objects were attracted to one another. What’s more, the silk threads of the spiderweb curved toward each other underneath a charged honeybee that was falling toward it, making it likelier that the hapless insect would get entangled in the deadly web. The deformation was nearly half the length of the insects, a fairly big change.

“This is quite intriguing,” said Markus Buehler, a materials scientist who studies spider silk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the study. “This attraction pulls the insect to the web and enhances the likelihood that it is being caught in the web.”

But it’s not clear how often this strange effect plays out in nature. Cross spiders mostly dine on flies, not bees, and so far, no one has tested whether flies have an electric charge. The bigger question, Buehler said, is how many insects are electrically charged.

Source: huffingtonpost.com