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Nature’s Best and Brightest: The Experts

It is said that if you spend 10,000 hours practicing something, you will become an expert at it. For non-human animals, this is not the case. Thousands of years of evolution have produced species that are masters of their unique behaviors and crafts. Ranging from hunting techniques to building structures, many animals have made names for themselves as masters among their peers.

Tardigrades

Adorybiotus cornifer

Animals such as polar bears and penguins are widely known as survivors of extreme cold, but tardigrades are the champions of enduring such bitter conditions. Tardigrades (known colloquially as water bears or moss piglets), specifically the species Adorybiotus cornifer, have been seen to survive a low of -196 °C in a lab setting (1). Tardigrades are also able to live in extremely dry conditions, including space (2). The species Richtersius coronifer and Milnesium tardigradum were launched and exposed to the space vacuum at low Earth orbit for 10 days, which they survived (2). These microscopic masters of survival experienced extreme desiccation, the loss of liquid from the body, and lived to tell the tale.

Spiders

Araneus diadematus

Nature’s mathematicians–spiders–are experts in geometry, which is shown through their intricate web designs. Each web-weaving spider has its own unique web design, which is due to the individual’s construction behavior (3). Although each web is unique, there are certain patterns that all members of a species share. One experiment in web-weaving involving the European garden spider (Araneus diadematus) observed that 75% of each web was composed of the capture spiral (3). This experiment also observed that every web was vertically stretched (3).

Longarm Octopus

Macrotritopus defilippi

Camouflage is a relatively common defense tactic that is seen in nature. Camouflage, also known as cryptic coloration, is when an animal blends in with its surroundings. The Atlantic longarm octopus is the master of remaining hidden, as it not only employs camouflage but also mimicry (4). Mimicry is when an animal impersonates another animal. The Atlantic longarm octopus engages in these two defense strategies when swimming across open sand plains by using both camouflage and mimicry to impersonate the common flatfish (Bothus lunatus), a predator of the octopus (4). The combination of these two techniques makes this octopus virtually invisible to the common flatfish, making it an expert at evading predation.

Cheetah

Acinonyx jubatus

Nature’s fastest land animal–the cheetah–is a master at chasing down its prey. One study that recorded the running speeds of adult cheetahs found that they are capable of running up to 29 meters per second, or approximately 65 miles per hour (5). High speeds are not the only athletic tool up the cheetah’s sleeve; they are also capable of matching the turns that their prey take to try and evade their speedy predator (6). In a study done to examine the locomotion of cheetahs, it was found that cheetahs will run at slower speeds to perform quick turns, thus following the running path of their prey (6). The higher the running speed, the harder it is to turn, so control over running speed is incredibly important for cheetahs. The cheetah’s tail plays an important role in controlling these turns by moving in a conical motion as they take them, thus providing stability (7). The combination of high speeds plus fast maneuvering makes this feline an expert athlete.

Village Weaver

Ploceus cucullatus

Nest building, a common practice in birds, is taken to a whole new level with the bird family Ploceidae. The species within this family practice weaving skills for their nests that are comparable with the weaving skills of humans. One such species, the village weaver, sees much variability among males’ nests (8). A single male will make multiple nests of variable heights, lengths, and weights, depending on the order in which the nests are constructed (8). These masters of architecture make nest-weaving look like art rather than a basic survival structure.

The result of selective breeding for certain traits over time has resulted in many species being experts in their respective behaviors. From weaving webs and nests to perfecting camouflage, these described species have mastered their unique survival and reproductive behaviors. They didn’t need 10,000 hours of practice; instead, they needed over 10,000 years of evolution.

Article written by Sammi Duven.

References

1. Ramløv, H., & Westh, P. (1992). Survival of the cryptobiotic eutardigrade Adorybiotus coronifer during cooling to −196 °C: Effect of cooling rate, trehalose level, and short-term acclimation. Cryobiology, 29(1), 125-130.https://doi.org/10.1016/0011-2240(92)90012-Q

2. Jönsson, K. I., Rabbow, E., Schill, R. O., Harms-Ringdahl, M., & Rettberg, P. (2008). Tardigrades survive exposure to space in low Earth orbit. Current Biology, 18(17), R729-R731. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2008.06.048

3. Vollrath, F., Downes, M., & Krackow, S. (1997). Design variability in web geometry of an orb-weaving spider. Physiology & Behavior, 62(4), 735-743. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0031-9384(97)00186-8

4. Hanlon, R. T., Watson, A. C., & Barbosa, A. (2010). A “mimic octopus” in the Atlantic: flatfish mimicry and camouflage by Macrotritopus defilippiBiological Bulletin, 218, 15-24. https://doi.org/10.1086/BBLv218n1p15

5. Sharp, N. C. C. (2009). Timed running speed of a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Journal of Zoology, 241(3), 493-494. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1997.tb04840.x

6. Wilson, J. W., Mills, M. G. L., Wilson, R. P., Peters, G., Mills, M. E. J., Speakman, J. R., Durant, S. M., Bennett, N. C., Marks, N. J., & Scantlebury, M. (2013). Cheetahs, Acinonyx jubatus, balance turn capacity with pace when chasing prey. Biology Letters, 9(5), 20130620. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2013.0620

7. Patel, A., & Boje, E. (2015). On the conical motion of a two-degree-of-freedom tail inspired by the cheetah. IEEE Transactions on Robotics, 31(6), 1555-1560. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/TRO.2015.2495004

8. Walsh, P. T., Hansell, M., Borello, W. D., & Healy, S. D. (2009). Repeatability of nest morphology in African weaver birds. Biology Letters, 6, 149-151. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2009.0664

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