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.

A Surprising Animation Revisits the Miracle on the Hudson & the Cause of US Airways Flight 1549’s Crash

Nearly 15 years ago, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, bound for Seattle by way of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft plowed into a flock of migrating birds, and its engines failed.

In less than four minutes, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger guided the vessel down to the frigid Hudson River.

Office workers on Manhattan’s west side were riveted by the spectacle of passengers standing on the wings, awaiting rescue by two NY Waterway ferries and other local boats.

Everyone on board survived, and few of their injuries were serious.

The incident was quickly framed as “the Miracle on the Hudson” and Captain Sullenberger was hailed as a hero.

Captain Sullenberger credited his successful maneuver to his 42 years as a pilot:

I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.

Such modesty only emphasized his heroism in the eyes of the public.

Such narratives preoccupy animator Bernardo Britto, whose 2020 short Hudson Geese comes at this historic event from another angle:

Narratives become our way of explaining and understanding the world. They are a part of how we build our identities and the stories we tell about ourselves. And stories by definition are exclusionary. Because you can’t fit it all in a story. They’re reductive. They’re simplified, easily digestible versions of a chain of events that’s way too complex for us to wrap our heads around.

(His interest in looking beyond established narrative boundaries carries over to the land acknowledgment in his short’s final credits: ”Before Chesley, before airplanes, before the apartment in which this short was conceived, “New York City” was the home of the Lenape, Canarsie, and Wappinger people.”)

Revisiting the Miracle on the Hudson in the thrall of the Rashomon effect may mute your rageful impulses the next time a flock of Canada geese toilets its way across your favorite green space.

Even though Hudson Geese clocks in at a tight five, we get enough time with its nameless lead to become invested in his travels, his dedication to his life partner, Sharona, his migration history, and his connection to his animal essence:

As we take to the air, I feel a familiar emotion, a deep sense that this is where I really belong, more so than the lake in Shawinigan, much more so than the golf course on the Potomac, I belong here, in the air, flying safely over all the noise, high above the city, that unintelligible mess of spires and skyscrapers, that island that became for reasons unknown to a simple goose like me, the very center of all the world.

Captain Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles receive animated cameos in Hudson Geese, as do Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood, leaving our anti-hero to wonder who will immortalize Sharona and who will remember the day’s “fallen fowl.”

(With regard to the last question, possibly, Tom Haueter, the National Transportation Safety Board‘s former head of major accident investigation. The Federal Aviation Administration failed to implement many of his proposed safety measures following the crash.)

The human media’s hot take was that “thankfully no one was hurt.

The goose can only conceive of the Miracle on the Hudson as a “complete and utter massacre.”

Watch more of Bernardo Britto’s animations on his Vimeo channel.

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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.

Behold the Bridges in India Made of Living Tree Roots

Living green walls and upcycled building materials are welcome environmentally-conscious design trends, but when it comes to sustainable architecture, the living root bridges made by indigenous Khasi and Jaintia people in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya have them beat by centuries.

These traditional plant-based suspension bridges make it much easier for villagers to travel to neighboring communities, markets and outlying farms by spanning the dense tropical rainforest’s many gorges and rivers.

Their construction requires patience, as builders train the aerial roots of well-situated, mature rubber fig trees into position using bamboo, old tree trunks, and wire for support, weaving more roots in as they become available.

This multi-generational construction project can take up to 30 years to complete. The carefully-tended bridges become sturdier with age, as the roots that form the deck and handrails thicken.

The village of Nongriat has one bridge that has been in place for 200-some years. An upper bridge, suspended directly overhead, is a hundred years younger.

As village head and lifelong resident Wiston Miwa told Great Big Story, above, when he was a child, people were leery of using the newer bridge, worried that it was not yet strong enough to be safe. Six decades later, villagers (and tourists) traverse it regularly.

Architect Sanjeev Shankar, in a study of 11 living root bridges, learned that new structures are loaded with stones, planks, and soil to test their weight bearing capacity. Some of the oldest can handle 50 pedestrians at once.

Humans are not the only creatures making the crossing. Bark deer and clouded leopards are also known travelers. Squirrels, birds, and insects settle in for permanent stays.

The Khasi people follow an oral tradition, and have little written documentation regarding their history and customs, including the construction of living root bridges.

Architect Ferdinand Ludwig, a champion of Baubotanik – or living plant construction – notes that there is no set design being followed. Both nature and the villagers tending to the growing structures can be considered the architects here:

When we construct a bridge or a building, we have a plan – we know what it’s going to look like. But this isn’t possible with living architecture. Khasi people know this; they are extremely clever in how they constantly analyze and interact with tree growth, and accordingly adapt to the conditions…How these roots are pulled, tied and woven together differ from builder to builder. None of the bridges looks similar.

The bridges, while remote, are becoming a bucket list destination for adventurers and ecotourists, Nongriat’s double bridge in particular.

The BBC’s Zinara Rathnayake reports that such outside interest has provided villagers with an additional source of income, as well as some predictable headaches – litter, inappropriate behavior, and overcrowding:

Some root bridges see crowds of hundreds at a time as tourists clamber for selfies, potentially overburdening the trees.

The Living Bridge Foundation, which works to preserve the living root bridges while promoting responsible ecotourism is seeking to have the area designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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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.

Discover Edo, the Historic Green/Sustainable City of Japan

When you picture modern day Tokyo, what comes to mind?

The electronic billboards of Shibuya and Shinjuku?

The teeming streets?

The maid cafes?

The robot hotel?

A 97 square foot micro apartment?

Bernard Guerrini‘s documentary Naturopolis – Tokyo, from megalopolis to garden-city describes Tokyo as “a giant city, a city which never stops growing:”

It has destroyed its natural spaces. It has created its own weather. It’s too big for its own good. They say Tokyo is like an amoeba that absorbs everything in its path.

It’s a far cry from the urban space Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, intended when planting the seeds for Edo, as Tokyo was originally called.

As the above excerpt from Naturopolis explains, the 16th-century city was innovative in its incorporation of green space.

The daimyō, or military lords, were required by the shogunate to keep residences in Edo. Each of these homes was furnished with a gardener and a landscaper to maintain the beauty of its al fresco areas.

Meanwhile, crops were cultivated in all communal outdoor open spaces, with irrigation canals supplying the necessary water for growing rice.

These plant-rich settings provided a hospitable environment for animals both wild and domestic. The carefully curated natural zones invited quiet contemplation of flora and fauna, giving rise to the seasonal celebrations and rites that are still observed throughout Japan.

Whether admiring blossoms and fireflies in spring and summer or autumn leaves and snowy winter scenes in the colder months, Edo’s citizens revered the natural world outside their doorsteps.

Bashō did the same in his haiku; Utagawa Hiroshige in his series of ukiyo-e prints, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.

Somewhat less poetically celebrated was the importance of night soil to this biodynamic, pre-industrial shogunate capital. As environmental writer Eisuke Ishikawa delicately notes in Japan in the Edo Period – An Ecologically-Conscious Society:

A long time ago, when excrement was a precious fertilizer, it naturally belonged to the person who produced it. Farmers used to buy excrement for cash or trade it for a comparable amount of vegetables. Fertilizer shortages were a chronic problem during the Edo period. As the standard of living in cities improved, surrounding villages needed an increasing amount of fertilizer…

(Anyone who’s shouldered the surprisingly heavy interactive–not THAT interactive–night soil buckets on display in Tokyo’s Edo Museum will have a feel for just how much of this necessary element each block of the capital city generated on a daily basis.)

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought many changes – a new government, a new name for Edo, and a race toward Western-style industrialization. Many parks and gardens were destroyed as Tokyo rapidly expanded beyond Edo’s original footprint.

But now, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is looking to its past in an effort to combat the effects of climate change with a push toward environmental sustainability.

The goal is net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, with 2030 serving as a benchmark.

In addition to holding the business, financial, and energy sectors to environmentally responsible standard, the zero emission plan seeks to address the average citizen’s quality of life, with a literal return to more green spaces:

Accelerating climate change measures is important to preserve biodiversity and continue to reap its bounty. In recent years, the idea of green infrastructure that utilizes the functions of the natural environment has attracted attention. It is one of the most important considerations for the future: achieving both biodiversity conservation and climate change measures.

A United Nation report* pointed out that COVID-19 is potentially a zoonotic disease derived from wildlife, such infectious diseases will increase in the future, and one of the reasons is the destruction of nature by humans.

Read Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Zero Transmission Strategy and Update 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 an Astonishing Near-Nightly Spectacle in the Lightning Capital of the World

Extreme weather conditions have become a topic of grave concern. Are floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and catastrophic storms the new normal?

Just for a moment, let’s travel to a place where extreme weather has always been the norm: Lake Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela.

According to NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission‘s lightning image sensor, it is the lightning capital of the world.

Chalk it up to the unique geography and climate conditions near the confluence of the lake and the Catatumbo River. At night, the moist warm air above the water collides with cool breezes rolling down from the Andes, creating an average of 297 thunderstorms a year.

Watching photographer Jonas Piontek‘s short film documenting the phenomenon, above, it’s not surprising that chief among his tips for shooting lightning at night is a pointed warning to always keep a safe distance from the storm. While viewable from as far as 400 kilometers away, the area nearest the lightning activity can average 28 strikes per minute.

More than 400 years before Piontek shared his impressions with the world, Spanish poet Lope de Vega tapped Catatumbo lightning in his epic 1597 poem La Dragontea, crediting it, erroneously, with having  thwarted Sir Francis Drake‘s plans to conquer the city of Maracaibo under cover of night. His poetic license was persuasive enough that it’s still an accepted part of the myth.

The “eternal storm” did however give Venezuelan naval forces a genuine natural assist, by illuminating a squadron of Spanish ships on Lake Maracaibo, which they defeated on July 24, 1823, clearing the way to independence.

Once upon a time, large numbers of local fishermen took advantage of their prime position to fish by night, although with recent deforestation, political conflict, and economic decline decimating the villages where they live in traditional stilted houses, their livelihood is in decline.

Meanwhile the Eternal Storm has itself been affected by forces of extreme weather. In 2010, a drought occasioned by a particularly strong El Niño, caused lightning activity to cease for 6 weeks, its longest disappearance in 104 years.

Environmentalist Erik Quiroga, who is campaigning for the Catatumbo lightning to be designated as the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Weather Phenomenon warns, “This is a unique gift and we are at risk of losing it.”

See more of Jonas Piontek’s Catatumbo lightning photographs here.

– 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.

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