Wild Things: Life as We Know It

Flight of the hummingbird, termite cloning and the rise of the octopus

Termite queens
Kenji Matsuura

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Hummingbird in flight
(Maura McCarthy)
How do birds and flying insects control a turn? According to high-speed video studies of seven species by the university of Delaware and North Carolina, they flap, say, the right wing more vigorously than the other to start a left turn—then flap both symmetrically to straighten out. Surprisingly, the technique is the same for creatures from fruit flies and moths to hummingbirds and cockatoos.

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Termite queens
(Maura McCarthy)
Termite queens from a species in Japan have an unusual way of reproducing: they clone themselves, according to new genetic research from Okayama University and elsewhere. The cloned queens accelerate the colony population growth by mating with its king. And because the clones were not sired by the king to begin with, the colony minimizes a problem common in royal families: inbreeding.

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Lizards on Greek islands
(Maura McCarthy)
Lizards on Greek islands with venomous snakes shed their tails more often than lizards on snake-free islands, according to a University of Michigan-led team. It seems the threat of being injected in the tail with venom leads lizards to sacrifice the appendage—a life-preserving act—when any predator (or researcher) clamps on.

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Octopus fossil
(Maura McCarthy)
Digging in Lebanon, scientists from the Freie University Berlin and elsewhere unearthed 95-million-year-old octopus fossils—the oldest, most complete specimens of their kind. Typically, a dead octopus doesn't fossilize; lacking a skeleton, it decays without a trace. It's not clear how these were preserved. And since the fossils (a specimen with an ink sac) closely resemble modern animals, the researchers say octopuses must have evolved even earlier than they had thought.

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Largemouth bass caught on a lure
(Maura McCarthy)
Name: The largemouth bass, Micropterus salmoides.
Hook Me Once: It strikes hard and fights long, and so is prized by anglers.
Hook Me Twice: An individual bass' likelihood of being caught depends in part on its parentage, say researchers led by the University of Illinois. In their 20-year study, fish prone to take the bait produced highly susceptible offspring; fish prone to forgo it produced less-hookable offspring.
Hook Me Three Times: Unlucky anglers have a new, genetic excuse: the gullible wild bass have been caught, leaving only the wily ones.