How Scientists Are Turning Dead Spiders Into Robots That Grip

Kids who dig robotics usually start out building projects that mimic insects in both appearance and action.

Daniel Preston, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Rice University and PhD student Faye Yap come at it from a different angle. Rather than designing robots that move like insects, they repurpose dead wolf spiders as robotic claws.

Very little modification is required.

Yap explains that, unlike mammals, spiders lack antagonistic muscles:

They only have flexor muscles, which allow their legs to curl in, and they extend them outward by hydraulic pressure. When they die, they lose the ability to actively pressurize their bodies. That’s why they curl up.

When a scientifically inclined human inserts a needle into a deceased spider’s hydraulic prosoma chamber, seals it with superglue, and delivers a tiny puff of air from a handheld syringe, all eight legs will straighten like fingers on jazz hands.

These necrobiotic spider gripper tools can lift around 130% of their body weight – smaller spiders are capable of handling more – and each one is good for approximately 1000 grips before degrading.

Preston and Yap envision putting the spiders to work sorting or moving small scale objects, assembling microelectronics, or capturing insects in the wild for further study.

Eventually, they hope to be able to isolate the movements of individual legs, as living spiders can.

Environmentally, these necrobiotic parts have a major advantage in that they’re fully biodegradable. When they’re no longer technologically viable, they can be composted. (Humans can be too, for that matter…)

The idea is as innovative as it is offbeat. As a soft robotics specialist, Preston is always seeking alternatives to hard plastics, metals and electronics:

We use all kinds of interesting new materials like hydrogels and elastomers that can be actuated by things like chemical reactions, pneumatics and light. We even have some recent work on textiles and wearables…The spider falls into this line of inquiry. It’s something that hasn’t been used before but has a lot of potential.”

Conquer any lingering arachnophobia by reading Yap and Preston’s research article,  Necrobotics: Biotic Materials as Ready-to-Use Actuators, here.

Hat Tip to Open Culture reader Dawn Yow.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Death-Cap Mushrooms are Terrifying and Unstoppable: A Wild Animation

Mushrooms are justly celebrated as virtuous multitaskers.

They’re food, teachers, movie stars, design inspiration

…and some, as anyone who’s spent time playing or watching The Last of Us can readily attest, are killers.

Hopefully we’ve got some time before civilization is conquered by zombie cordyceps.

For now, the ones to watch out for are amanita phalloide, aka death cap mushrooms.

The powerful amatoxin they harbor is behind 90 percent of mushroom-related fatalities worldwide. It causes severe liver damage, leading to bleeding disorders, brain swelling, and multi-organ failure in those who survive. 

A death cap took the life of a three-year-old in British Columbia who mistook one for a tasty straw mushroom on a foraging expedition with his family near their apartment complex. 

In Melbourne, a pot pie that tested positive for death caps resulted in the deaths of three adults, and sent a fourth to the hospital in critical condition.

As the animators feast on mushrooms’ limitless visual appeal in the above episode of The Atlantic’s Life Up Close series, author Craig Childs delivers some sobering news:

We did it to ourselves. Humans are the ones who’ve enabled death caps to spread so far beyond their native habitats in Scandinavia and parts of northern Europe, where the poisonous fungi feed on the root tips of deciduous trees, springing up around their hosts in tidy fairy rings.

When other countries import these trees to beautify their city streets, the death caps, whose fragile spores are incapable of traveling long distances when left to their own devices, tag along.

They have sprouted in the Pacific Northwest near imported sweet chestnuts, beeches, hornbeams, lindens, red oaks, and English oaks, and other host species.

As biochemist Paul Kroeger, cofounder of the Vancouver Mycological Society, explained in a 2019 article Childs penned for the Atlantic, the invasive death caps aren’t popping up in deeply wooded areas. 

Rather, they are settling into urban neighborhoods, frequently in the grass strips bordering sidewalks. When Childs accompanied Krueger on his rounds, the first of two dozen death caps discovered that day were found in front of a house festooned with Halloween decorations. 

Now that they have established themselves, the death caps cannot be rousted. No longer mere tourists, they’ve been seen making the jump to native oaks in California and Western Canada.

Childs also notes that death caps are no longer a North American problem:

They have spread worldwide where foreign trees have been introduced into landscaping and forestry practices: North and South America, New Zealand, Australia, South and East Africa, and Madagascar. In Canberra, Australia, in 2012, an experienced Chinese-born chef and his assistant prepared a New Year’s Eve dinner that included, unbeknownst to them, locally gathered death caps. Both died within two days, waiting for liver transplants; a guest at the dinner also fell ill, but survived after a successful transplant.

Foragers should proceed with extreme caution.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Young David Attenborough Encounter Animals in Their Natural Habitats: Video from the 1950s and 1960s

Experience long ago conferred the mantle of authority on broadcaster, biologist, natural historian and author David Attenborough, age 97.

In his late 20s, he landed at the BBC, producing live studio broadcasts that ran the gamut from children’s shows, ballet performances and archeological quizzes to programs focused on cooking, religion and politics.

When an educational show starring animals from the London Zoo became a hit with viewers, the powers that be built on its popularity with a fresh take – a show that sent the intrepid young Attenborough around the world, seeking animals in their native habitats. He was accompanied by cameraman Charles Lagus and two zoologists, whom he quickly supplanted as host.

It made for thrilling viewing in an era when wildlife tourism was available to a very few.

The New York Times notes that many of the creatures who cropped up onscreen in these early Zoo Quest episodes were shipped back to London Zoo:

It is not the kind of mission we approve of nowadays, but without it the West might never have gotten interested in wildlife to begin with. We started by shooting exotic species for their skins and bones and trapping them for our zoos, and only recently moved to worrying about their survival in the wild and the health of the planet in general. This history is symbolized by the transformation of Attenborough himself from a talking and writing crocodile hunter to the greatest living advocate of the global ecosystem.

In Borneo in 1956, in search for Komodo dragons, he paused for an encounter with an orangutan, above, and also a big whiff of durian, the spiky, odiferous fruit whose aroma famously got it banned from Singapore’s elegant Raffles Hotel, with taxis, planes, subways, and ferries following suit.

Soon thereafter, the six-episode hunt for the Komodo dragon finds Attenborough in Java, masking his nerves as he uses a cutlass, a willingness to climb trees, and a cloth sack to get the better of a fully grown python.

(Once the serpent was settled at the London Zoo, he made the trek to the BBC for an in-studio appearance.)

You’ll note that this episode is in color.

Although Zoo Quest filmed in color, it aired ten years before color broadcasts were available to UK viewers, so most of the folks watching at home assumed it had been shot in black and white.

In 1960, Attenborough used the latest — now severely outmoded-looking– technology to capture the first audio recording of the indri, Madagascar’s largest lemur for Attenborough’s Wonder of Song.

This audio victory led him to wonder if he could be the first to film an indri.

Frustrated by the thick canopy overhead, Attenborough resorted to playback, successfully tempting the animals to not only come closer, but do so while vocalizing.

Mating calls?

No. Attenborough deduced that they were the indris’ “battle songs”, issued as a warning to the perceived threat of unfamiliar indris.

In 2011, Attenborough returned to Madagascar, listening respectfully to Joseph, a local hunter turned conservationist, who explains how the local populace no longer think of indri as a food source, but rather a symbol of their commitment to preserving the natural world around them. Joseph’s relationship with the indri affords Sir David a rare opportunity, as the indri feed from his hand:

Fifty years ago, I spent days and days and days searching through the forest, with these firing their noise overhead but now this group is so accustomed to seeing people around that I have been right close up to them, something I never believed could have be possible. 

Read more about David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest experiences in his memoir, Adventures of a Young Naturalist, and watch a playlist of documentaries for the BBC here.

via TheKidsShouldSeeThis

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Cats Migrated to Europe 7,000 Years Earlier Than Once Thought

The animals were imperfect,


unfortunate in their heads.

Little by little they

put themselves together,

making themselves a landscape,

acquiring spots, grace, flight.

The cat,

only the cat

appeared complete and proud:

he was born completely finished,

walking alone and knowing what he wanted.

– Pablo Neruda, excerpt from Ode to the Cat

We find ourselves in agreement with Nobel Prize-winning poet, and cat lover, Pablo Neruda:

Those of us who provide for felines choose to believe we are “the owner, proprietor, uncle of a cat, companion, colleague, disciple or friend of (our) cat”, when in fact they are mysterious beasts, far more self-contained than the companionable, inquisitive canine Neruda immortalized in Ode to the Dog.

We can bestow names and social media accounts on cats of our acquaintance, channel them on the steps of the Met Gala, attach GPS trackers to their collars, give them pride of placement in books for children and adults, and try our best to get inside their heads, but what do we know about them, really?

We even got their history wrong.

Common knowledge once held that cats made their way to northern Europe from the Mediterranean aboard Roman – and eventually Viking – ships sometime between the 3rd to 7th century CE, but it turns out we were off by millennia.

In 2016, a team of researchers collaborating on the Five Thousand Years of History of Domestic Cats in Central Europe project confirmed the presence of domestic cats during the Roman period in the area that is now northern Poland, using a combination of zooarchaeology, genetics and absolute dating.

More recently, the team turned their attention to Felis bones found in southern Poland and Serbia, determining the ones found in the Jasna Strzegowska Cave to be Pre-Neolithic (5990-5760 BC), while the Serbian kitties hail from the Mesolithic-Neolitic era (6220-5730 BC).

In addition to clarifying our understanding of how our pet cats’ ancestors arrived in Central Europe from Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, the project seeks to “identify phenotypic features related to domestication, such as physical appearance, including body size and coat color; behavior, for example, reduced aggression; and possible physiological adaptations to digest anthropogenic food.”

Regarding non-anthropogenic food, a spike in the Late Neolithic Eastern European house mouse population exhibits some nifty overlap with these ancient cat bones’ newly attached dates, though Dr. Danijela Popović, who supervised the project’s paleogeneticians, reports that the cats’ arrival in Europe preceded that of the first farmers:

These cats probably were still wild animals that naturally colonized Central Europe.

We’re willing to believe they established a bulkhead, then hung around, waiting until the humans showed up before implementing the next phase of their plan – self-domestication.

Read the research team’s “history of the domestic cat in Central Europe” here.

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via Big Think

– Ayun Halliday, human servant of two feline Mailroom Böyz, is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Parrots Taught to FaceTime Each Other Become Less Lonely, a New Study Shows

It’s telling that the avian participants in a recent study wherein pet parrots, assisted by their owners, learned to make video calls to others of their kind were recruited from the online educational forum Parrot Kindergarten.

In the above footage, the humans’ hopeful, high-pitched cajoling, as they encourage their birds to interact with a new “friend”, carries a strong whiff of those Mommy and Me classes where a dozen or so adults sit crosslegged in a circle, shaking tambourines and brightly warbling “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” while an equal number of toddlers wander around, markedly less invested in the proceedings.

Though, really, who am I to judge? I don’t have a parrot, and it’s been over two decades since my youngest child required parental interference to foment social interaction…

Eighteen pet parrots enrolled in the study, hanging out with one another during self-initiated video chats, to see how and if such interactions might improve their quality of life.

No one was forced to make a call if they weren’t feeling it, or to remain on the line after their interest flagged.

I’m hunching the average parrot’s preoccupation with modern technology clocks in far south of the average American toddler’s, which may explain why they completed a mere 147 calls over the course of two months (and 1000 hours of combined footage.)

That said, I can easily imagine a scenario in which the average human toddler, having successfully gotten their beak, excuse me, hands on a touchscreen tablet, loses all interest in FaceTiming with a peer, preferring the solitary pleasures of Balloon Pop or Peek-a-Zoo.

Typically, human toddlers have more opportunities for “interspecies ethical enrichment” than creatures whose lives are primarily spent in a cage. As the authors of the study note, “over 20 million parrots are kept as pets in the US, often lacking appropriate stimuli to meet their high social, cognitive, and emotional needs.”

The parrot participants may not have thrown themselves into the proceedings with the vigor of Bye Bye Birdie’s teenaged telephone chorus, but all placed calls, the majority exhibited “high motivation and intentionality”, and their humans indicated that they would gladly continue to facilitate this social experiment.

The human contribution is not inconsiderable here. It took vast amounts of time and patience to orient the birds to the system, and careful monitoring to make sure calls didn’t run off the rails. Nothing like having your iPad screen smashed by a parrot who’s got beef in an online forum…

Several legit friendships formed over the course of the experiment – a Goffin’s cockatoo and an African grey who made each other’s virtual acquaintance during the pilot study were still chatting, a year after they met.

Data collected in the field shows that the number and duration of outgoing calls were closely tied to the number and duration of incoming calls. The most popular birdies did not take their connections for granted.

It’s a finding humans would do well to absorb if we are to combat feelings of isolation from within our own species.

Read Birds of a Feather Video-Flock Together: Design and Evaluation of an Agency-Based Parrot-to-Parrot Video-Calling System for Interspecies Ethical Enrichment here.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


Behold 900+ Magnificent Botanical Collages Created by a 72-Year-Old Widow, Starting in 1772

“I have invented a new way of imitating flowers,” Mary Delany, a 72-year-old widow wrote to her niece in 1772 from the grand home where she was a frequent guest, having just captured her hostess’ geranium’s likeness, by collaging cut paper in a nearly identical shade.

Novelty rekindled the creative fire her husband’s death had dampened.

Former pursuits such as needlework, silhouette cut outs, and shell decorating went by the wayside as she dedicated herself fully to her botanical-themed “paper mosaicks.”

Over the next decade Mrs. Delany produced 985 astonishingly floral representations from meticulously cut, hand colored tissue, which she glued to hand painted black backings, and labeled with the specimens’ taxonomic and common names, as well as a collection of numbers, date and provenance.

In the beginning, she took inspiration from a giant collection of botanical specimens amassed by the celebrated botanist Sir Joseph Banks, with whom she became acquainted while spending summers at Bulstrode, the Buckinghamshire estate of her friend Margaret Bentinck, duchess of Portland and a fellow enthusiast of the natural world.

Bulstrode also provided her with abundant source material. The estate boasted botanic, flower, kitchen, ancient and American gardens, as well a staff botanist, the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander charged with cataloguing their contents according to the Linnaean system.

Sir Joseph Banks commended Mrs. Delany’s powers of observation, declaring her assemblages “the only imitations of nature” from which he “could venture to describe botanically any plant without the least fear of committing an error.”

They also succeed as art.

Molly Peacock, author of The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, appears quite overcome by Mrs. Delany’s Passiflora laurifolia – more commonly known as water lemon, Jamaican honeysuckle or vinegar pear:

The main flower head … is so intensely public that it’s as if you’ve come upon a nude stody. She splays out approximately 230 shockingly vulvular purplish pink petals in the bloom, and inside the leaves she places the slenderest of ivory veins also cut separately from paper, with vine tendrils finer that a girl’s hair. It is so fresh that it looks wet and full of desire, yet the Passiflora is dull and matte

Mrs. Delany’s exquisitely rendered paper flowers became high society sensations, fetching her no small amount of invitations from titled hosts and hostesses, clamoring for specimens from their gardens to be immortalized in her growing Flora Delanica.

She also received donations of exotic plants at Balstrode, where greenhouses kept non-native plants alive, as she gleefully informed her niece in a 1777 letter, shortly after completing her work:

I am so plentifully supplied with the hothouse here, and from the Queen’s garden at Kew, that natural plants have been a good deal laid aside this year for foreigners, but not less in favour. O! How I long to show you the progress I have made. 

Her work was in such demand, that she streamlined her creation process from necessity, coloring paper in batches, and working on several pieces simultaneously.

Her failing eyesight forced her to stop just shy of her goal of one thousand flowers.

She dedicated the ten volumes of Flora Delanica to her friend, the duchess of Portland, mistress of Balstrode “(whose) approbation was such a sanction to my undertaking, as made it appear of consequence and gave me courage to go on with confidence.”

She also reflected on the great undertaking of her seventh decade in a poem:

        Hail to the happy hour! When fancy led

My pensive mind this flow’ry path to tread;

And gave me emulation to presume

With timid art to trace fair Nature’s bloom.

Explore The British Museum’s interactive archive of Mary Delany’s botanical paper collages here.

All images © The Trustees of the British Museum, republished under a Creative Commons license.

via Colossal

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Archaeologists May Have Discovered a Secret Language in Lascaux & Chauvet Cave Paintings, Perhaps Revealing a 20,000-Year-Old “Proto-Writing” System

Care to take a guess what your smart phone has in common with Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira?

Both can be used to track fertility.

Admittedly, you’re probably not using your phone to stay atop the reproductive cycles of reindeer, salmon, and birds, but such information was of critical interest to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Knowing how crucial an understanding of animal behavior would have been to early humans led London-based furniture conservator Ben Bacon to reconsider what purpose might have been served by non-figurative markings – slashes, dots, and Y-shapes – on the cave walls’ 20,000-year-old images.

Their meaning had long eluded esteemed professionals. The marks seemed likely to be numeric, but to what end?

Bacon put forward that they documented animal lives, using a lunar calendar.

The amateur researcher assembled a team that included experts from the fields of mathematics, archeology, and psychology, who analyzed the data, compared it to the seasonal behaviors of modern animals, and agreed that the numbers represented by the dots and slashes are not cardinal, but rather an ordinal representation of months. 

As Bacon told All Things Considered his fellow self-taught anthropological researcher, science journalist Alexander Marshack, came close to cracking the code in the 1970s:

… but he wasn’t actually able to demonstrate the system because he thought that these individual lines were days. What we did is we said, actually, they’re months because a hunter-gatherer doesn’t need to know what day a reindeer migrates. They need to know what month the reindeer migrates. And once you use these months units, this whole system responds very, very well to that.

As to the frequently occurring symbol that resembles a Y, it indicates the months in which various female animal birthed their young. Bacon and his team theorize in the Cambridge Archeological Journal that this mark may even constitute “the first known example of an ‘action‘ word, i.e. a verb (‘to give birth’).

Taken together, the cave paintings and non-figurative markings tell an age-old circular tale of the migration, birthing and mating of aurochs, birds, bison, caprids, cervids, fish, horses, mammoths, and rhinos … and like snakes and wolverines, too, though they were excluded from the study on basis of “exceptionally low numbers.”

Early humans were able to log months by observing the moon, but how could they tell when a new year had begun, essential information for anyone seeking to arrange their lives around their prey’s previously documented activities?

Bacon and his peers, like so many poets and farmers, look to the rites of spring:

The obvious event is the so-called ‘bonne saison’, a French zooarchaeological term for the time at the end of winter when rivers unfreeze, the snow melts, and the landscape begins to green.

Read the conclusions of their study here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


A Stunning, Hand-Illustrated Book of Mushrooms Drawn by an Overlooked 19th Century Female Scientist

Mushrooms have quietly become superstars of the global stage.

Sure, not everyone likes them on pizza, but who cares?

In the 21st-century, they are hailed as role models and potential planet savers (not to mention a wildly popular design motif…)

Time-lapse cinematography pioneer Louie Schwartzberg’s critically acclaimed documentary, Fantastic Fungi, has made experts of us all.

Go back a century, and such knowledge was much harder won, requiring time, patience, and proximity to field or forest.

Witness Fungi collected in Shropshire and other neighborhoods, a handbound, hand-illustrated 3-volume collection by one Miss M. F. Lewis, of Ludlow, England.

Miss Lewis, a talented artist with an obvious passion for mycology spent over 40 years painstakingly documenting the specimens she ran across in England’s West Midlands region.

Each drawing or watercolor is identified in Miss Lewis’ hand by its subject’s scientific name. The location in which it was found is dutifully noted, as is the date.

The hundreds of species she captured with pen and brush between 1860 and 1902 definitely constitute a life’s work, and also an unpublished one.

Cornell University’s Mann Library, where the only copy of this precious record is housed, has managed to truffle up but a single reference to Miss Lewis’ scientific mycological contribution.

English botanist William Phillips, writing in an 1880 issue of the Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, noted that he been “permitted to look over [a work] of very much excellence executed by Miss M. F. Lewis, of Ludlow”, adding that “several rare species [of fungi] are very artistically represented.“

The historical significance of Miss Lewis’ work extends beyond the fungal realm.

As Sage writes in Missing Misses in Mycology, a post on the Mann Library’s Tumblr celebrating Miss Lewis and her contemporary, English mycologist and illustrator, Sarah Price, women’s work was often omitted from the official scientific record:

While we’re now seeing considerable effort to rectify the record, the discovery of untold stories to fill in the blanks can be tricky business. It’s not that the stories never happened — the field of botany, for one, is replete with some pretty spectacular evidence of women’s (often unacknowledged) engagement with scientific inquiry, embodied in the detailed illustrations that captured the insights of observations from the natural world. But the published historical record is often woefully scant when it comes to closer detail on the lives and careers of the women who have helped carry modern science forward.

We may never learn anything more about the particulars of Miss Lewis’ training or personal circumstances, but the care she took to preserve her own work turned out to be a great gift for future generations.

Leaf through all three volumes of Miss M.F. Lewis’ Fungi collected in Shropshire and other neighborhoods on the Internet Archive:

Volume I

Volume II

Volume III

Via Public Domain Review

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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