Category Archives: I just couldn’t help myself!

Virtuoso

Ornithologists at Cornell University were able to show that a bird from the rainforest, a club-winged manakin, made their mating sounds by rubbing their wings together! How cool is that? Really, it is cool. Watch the video and see below for an explanation.

Special thanks to my Mom for telling me about this little bird. Love you Mom!

This finch-sized bird just lifts its wings above its back. Big deal, right? That “lift” makes the noise. How? Slow motion video showed that the bird’s wings were a blur. This means that the bird was probably rubbing its wings together to make the sound. Dr. Kimberly Bostwick got herself a better digital video camera that could take 1000 frames per second. She finally was able to see the wing movement (you can too). It turns out that the bird is rubbing its wings together about 100 times a second. That is twice as fast as a humming bird.

The club-winged manakin uses a club-shaped feather as a pick to rake the ridges of another feather.
Illustration by Dr. Kimberly Bostwick

The frequency of the sound that was recorded was about 1400 hertz. That is quite a bit more than 100 hertz (wing beats per second). Dr. Bostwick was still missing a piece of the puzzle. She needed what she called a “frequency multiplier”. She looked more closely at the wing morphology of the bird. She found her frequency multiplier in the feathers. When the bird moves its wings, 2 special feathers rub together. See the illustration and caption on left for an explanation. The short answer is: cello and bow. One hundred times per SECOND. Beat that Yo Yo Mah!

These birds make the sound similar to the way crickets do. This shows that this type of sound making is not limited to insects, an amazing discovery. Evolution once again teaches us that no matter how much we may want to neatly put things in separate categories, life is just not that simple.

“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Charles Darwin, last sentence from the Origin of Species.

If you’d like to see Dr. Bostwick’s journal article in Science, you can read it as a webpage or a pdf file.

Why is “Extraterrestrials!” always the answer?

Because “Nature abhors a vacuum”. This is an old Latin proverb that can be first attributed to François Rabelais (c. 1494-1553) . Our minds can’t stand unanswered questions. So we populate the emptiness with answers like “Exterrestrials!”. Like the old maps of the world – men couldn’t leave the unknown parts empty and added “Here there be monsters!” or actually drew a few.

What has this got to do with biology? I could wave my hands and say of course behavior is driven by biology. Said and done. Moving on, I must confess, there is no direct link. I was  happily reading science news online and came across the headline:

Man looking for missing cat stumbles on buried ‘UFO’

Of course I was sucked in. I always am. I find it fascinating that the first explanation is always aliens. Even when there is clearly an obvious, logical explanation. There was in this case as well, but you can read the article for yourself if you’re interested.

I just don’t get it.

“When Fruit Flies Strike Out, They Like To Booze It Up”

NPR’s Scott Hensley reporting on brain biochemistry and alcohol. That’s all I have to say. Scott can be very humorous, and this report lends itself well to his humor. No spoilers here. Go read his work.

Drosophila melanogoster - fruit fly

“Icy Finger of Death” posted by Phil Plait on Bad Atronomy