You may have missed… new giant spider species, making Neolithic cheese, concrete from the tears of astronauts, and resilient bug-sized robots

A new giant spider species found in Queensland

A rare and giant species of trapdoor spider, about as big as a mouse and only found in the Brigalow Belt in Central Queensland, has been described by Queensland Museum scientists, according to a new study in The Journal of Arachnology.

Named Euoplos dignitas, the spiders lives in open woodland habitats and builds its burrows in the black soils of the Central Queensland region.

“The name Euoplos dignitas is derived from the Latin dignitas meaning “dignity or greatness” and is reflected by the impressive size and nature of the spider and but also a connection to Project DIG, who funded our research,” says Dr Michael Rix, Queensland Museum’s Principal Scientist and Curator of Arachnology, and lead author of the paper.

“This species is known from only a very few locations around Eidsvold and Monto in Central Queensland and has lost much of its habitat to land clearing, which makes it likely to be an endangered species.

Lactose-intolerant humans were making cheese in Neolithic times

A new study has found evidence of cheesemaking – using milk from a number of different animals, such as cows, sheep, and goats – in Late Neolithic Poland.

The research suggests that early farmers reduced the lactose content in milk by fermenting it into cheese or other dairy products like yogurt. Lactose intolerance was common in Europe during the Neolithic (7000-1700 BCE) until the Late Bronze Age (1200 BCE). This is when the genetic mutation that enables adults to produce lactase – the enzyme which breaks down lactose in the body – became widespread.

Three images of neolithic pottery studied in the paper
Neolithic ceramics identified with high curd-content residues, indicating multiple dairy animals were used. Credit: University of York

Researchers analysed Neolithic ceramics and showed that cheesemaking (and other curd-enriching dairy processing) can be directly detected by studying the proportion of curd proteins in residues left on the pottery. 

“Whilst previous research has shown that dairy products were widely available in some European regions during this period, here, for the first time, we have clear evidence for a diversified dairy herd, including cattle, sheep and goats, from the analysis of ceramics,” says Dr Harry Robson, co-author from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York in the UK.

A new concrete made from simulated extra-terrestrial dust, starch, and salt,

Scientists have created a new material, dubbed StarCrete, which is made from simulated Martian soil, potato starch, and a pinch of salt and could be used to build homes on Mars.

The material had a compressive strength of 72 Megapascals (MPa), which is more than twice as strong as the 32 MPa in ordinary concrete. StarCrete made from simulated moon dust was even stronger at over 91 MPa.

A brown-grey cube of material held aloft by a hand
Starcrete. Credit: Aled Roberts

The team calculate that a 25 kilogram sack of dehydrated potatoes contain enough starch to produce almost half a tonne of StarCrete, which is equivalent to over 213 bricks.. 

Additionally, they discovered that a common salt, magnesium chloride, obtainable from the Martian surface (or from the tears of astronauts), significantly improved the strength of StarCrete.

The new research is in the journal Open Engineering.

Resilient bug-sized robots keep flying even after wing damage

Inspired by the hardiness of bumblebees, researchers have developed techniques that enable a bug-sized aerial robot to sustain severe damage to the artificial muscles (actuators) that power its wings, and still fly effectively.

They optimised the actuators so the robot can better isolate defects and overcome minor damage – like tiny holes in the actuator – and demonstrated a new laser repair method that can help the robot recover from more severe damage, such as a fire that scorches the device.

Using their techniques, a damaged robot could maintain flight after one of its artificial muscles was jabbed by 10 needles, the actuator was still able to operate after a large hole was burnt into it, and a robot could maintain flight even after 20% of its wing tip was cut off.

Robot recovery 1
MIT researchers have developed resilient artificial muscles that can enable insect-scale aerial robots to effectively recover flight performance after suffering severe damage. Credit: courtesy of Kevin Chen, et. al

“We spent a lot of time understanding the dynamics of soft, artificial muscles and, through both a new fabrication method and a new understanding, we can show a level of resilience to damage that is comparable to insects,” says Kevin Chen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, and senior author of the paper.

“We’re very excited about this. But the insects are still superior to us, in the sense that they can lose up to 40 percent of their wing and still fly. We still have some catch-up work to do.”

The research, in Science Robotics, could make swarms of tiny robots better able to perform tasks in tough environments, like conducting a search mission through a collapsing building or dense forest.

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