What you might have missed: Hedwig lives on Potter; bendy barnacles; Palaeobionics, and icy moons

A mite named Hedwig lives on a beetle named Potter

A new species of mite, Paraschizogynium Hedwig, has been described and named after the owl Hedwig from the Harry Potter franchise.

“The mite was found on a beetle named Figulus which, in Latin, means ‘a potter.’ “So, as this mite is like a little pet of a Potter, I named it Hedwig,” says Dr Owen Seeman, Collection Manager for Arachnida at Queensland Museum, Australia.

“Perhaps more subtly, and naughtily, the name has no gender, it’s a slight bit of good-natured fun to make hedwig genderless,” Dr Seeman said.

The paper was published in The Australian Entomologist.

450-million-year-old organism finds new life in Softbotics

Mechanical engineers and palaeontologists have collaborated to engineer a soft robotic replica of a marine organism that existed hundreds of millions of years ago.

The research published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) introduces a new field of study called Palaeobionics. It aims to use robotics with flexible electronics and soft materials to understand the biomechanical factors that drove evolution using extinct organisms. 

The organism used in this study, pleurocystitid, is believed to be one of the first echinoderms capable of movement using a muscular stem. Echinoderms are a group of animals that have evolved to include starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers today.

“Softbotics is another approach to inform science using soft materials to construct flexible robot limbs and appendages. Many fundamental principles of biology and nature can only fully be explained if we look back at the evolutionary timeline of how animals evolved. We are building robot analogues to study how locomotion has changed,” says Carmel Majidi, lead author and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in the US.

Bendy barnacles fend off sea snails

Researchers have found that some barnacles are “morphing” to protect themselves from predatory warm-water sea snails.

A new study in the Journal of Biogeography shows that the temperate prey species is adapting in response to a phenomenon known as “tropicalisation”, where warm-water predators, usually restricted to subtropical and tropical regions, are establishing themselves in more temperate waters due to climate change.

They studied the prevalence of “bent morphs” – barnacles (Tetraclita rubescens) that morph into a bent shape to hide an opening in their shells. This protects against attack but comes at a price, with a slower rate of growth and lower reproduction.

Conic and bent morph 850
Conic morph (left) and bent morph (right). Credit: University of Southampton

“We found that bent morphs of T. rubescens were more common in the most southern part of its geographic range in the Baja California peninsula of Mexico, which is a region undergoing tropicalisation,” says Dr Phillip Fenberg, Associate Professor in Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton, UK, and lead author of the research.

“In these waters, T. rubescens barnacles are preyed upon by at least three species of warm-water sea snails which are expanding their geographic range due to rising sea temperatures. These sea snails have large bodies, and some can secrete toxins, making them very effective predators.”

Studying faults on icy moons

When an icy moon moves around its parent planet, the gravity of that planet can cause the surface of the moon to flex. This can drive geologic activity such as strike-slip faulting, which occurs when fault walls move past one another sideways. An example of this a little closer to home is the San Andreas fault in the US state of California.

Scientists have documented and revealed the mechanisms behind this geological phenomenon on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and Jupitor’s largest moon, Ganymede, according to two recently published studies.

Fig safs gany titan 850
Examples of strike-slip faults on (a) San Andreas Fault (Google Maps satellite image), (b) Ganymede (Galileo SSI), (c) and Titan (Titan Cassini SAR-HiSAR Global Mosaic). Credit: (a) San Andreas Fault (Google Maps satellite image), (b) Ganymede (Galileo SSI), (c) and Titan (Titan Cassini SAR-HiSAR Global Mosaic).

“We are interested in studying shear deformation on icy moons because that type of faulting can facilitate the exchange of surface and subsurface materials through shear heating processes, potentially creating environments conducive for the emergence of life,” says Liliane Burkhard, lead author of the studies and research affiliate at the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology in the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

“Geologic investigations, such as these, prior to launch and arrival, inform and guide [space exploration] mission activities.”

The first and second paper have been published in the journal Icarus.

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