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Researchers watch ants use tools to avoid drowning

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Oct. 8 (UPI) — Scientists have observed ants using sand to draw liquid food out of containers. In addition to helping ants avoid drowning, the strategy allowed them to more efficiently collect sugar water.

Researchers described the first-of-its-kind observation in a new paper, published Thursday in the journal Functional Ecology.

When scientists first presented black imported fire ants with containers of sugar water, the ants were able to float and feed on the surface without drowning. When researchers added a surfactant, the reduced surface tensions forced the ants to adapt.

Faced with the threat of drowning, the ants collected and deposited sand grains inside the containers.

“We found the ants used sand to build a structure that could effectively draw sugar water out of the container to then to be collected,” lead study author Aiming Zhou said in a news release.

“This exceptional tool making skill not only reduced the drowning risk of ants, but also provided a larger space for them to collect sugar water,” said Zhou, an associate professor at Huazhong Agricultural University in China.

When foraging in unadulterated containers of sugar water, the ants declined to use sand or any other tools, but the addition of a surfactant changed the risk-reward calculus.

Scientists were able to trigger sophisticated tool use, as well as illuminate the ants’ ability to recognize shifts in foraging risk.

“We knew some ant species are able to use tools, particularly in collecting liquid food; however, we were surprised by such remarkable tool use displayed by black imported fire ants,” said study co-author Jian Chen.

“Our findings suggest that ants and other social insects may have considerable high cognitive capabilities for unique foraging strategies,” said Chen, a research entomologist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

Black imported fire ants, Solenopsis richteri, are native to South America, but are now an invasive species in parts of the Southern United States. The ant’s hollow exoskeleton helps it float, but scientists suspect the insects still face a heightened risk of drowning as a result of their liquid diet. The ants rely heavily on nectar and honeydew.

Before allowing the ants an opportunity to demonstrate sophisticated tool usage, researchers had to figure out exactly how much surfactant would pose a problem to black imported fire ants. In the lab, scientists deposited the ants in containers of liquid with different levels of surface tension.

Once scientists knew how much surfactant to add to realize the risk of drowning, researchers presented the ants with a range of sand grain sizes. Researchers plan to repeat their experiments with different ant species in the future.

“Our experiments are conducted in the laboratory and only limited to the black imported fire ants,” said Chen. “Our study is the first to touch on this interesting topic. We hope our paper will motivate others to do the related investigations.”

Previously, sophisticated tool usage has only be observed among primates and some bird species. However, several previous studies have hinted at the ingenuity of ants.

One study proved ants are capable of collective cognition, while another showed ants can build bridges to cross gaps and form rafts to avoid drowning.



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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touches down on asteroid Bennu to nab sample

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Oct. 20 (UPI) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touched down on asteroid Bennu on Tuesday evening in a mission to scoop a sample of rocks and dirt.

The spacecraft — the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — made soft contact with the asteroid at 6:12 p.m. EDT.

The historic “touch and go” event featured animation displaying OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection activities in real time. It takes time for real images of the touchdown to travel back to the Earth, so they won’t be released to the public until Wednesday.

The craft executed a series of maneuvers over the course of several hours before making soft contact with the surface of the asteroid to collect regolith, or rocks and dirt.

“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a news conference ahead of the event.

Buck made a comparison to the descent of a spacecraft on Mars, when there is typically “seven minutes of terror.”

The goal is to learn more about the solar system’s history and help “planetary defense” engineers with missions to protect earth from rogue asteroids. Bennu is believed to be a window into the solar system’s past since it’s a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying building blocks of both planets and life.

At around 1:50 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft left orbit around the asteroid before executing a series of burns to position itself over a sampling area nicknamed Nightingale.

Once in position, the craft began its approach to the asteroid at 5:50 p.m. EDT. It then spent about 15 seconds attempting to collect the regolith sample before backing away again.

The area, which is 52 feet in diameter, will make for a more demanding landing than expected, Kenneth Getzandanner, OSIRIS-REx flight dynamics manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the news conference.

The original mission called for a landing “zone” about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected.

The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said.

“I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” Enos said.

Though early images from the asteroid should hint at whether the mission succeeded, it will take engineers roughly 10 days to compare and analyze the mass before and after the maneuver to actually know how much dirt is inside the OSIRIS-REx.

If it failed, the spacecraft has enough fuel to attempt two more touch downs to collect material.

The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth, with the regolith sample from Bennu, in 2023.



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SpaceX scrubs Starlink launch until Thursday, if weather cooperates

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Just three days after sending 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit, SpaceX is aiming to launch another batch of broadband satellites into space from Florida.

If the weather cooperates, Thursday’s launch will be SpaceX’s 15th Starlink mission.

Liftoff had been scheduled for 12:29 p.m. EDT Wednesday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but controllers scrubbed the launch due to weather and rescheduled for 12:14 p.m. on Thursday.

With a launch Sunday, SpaceX increased the size of their Starlink constellation to nearly 800 satellites. The 15th mission will see another 60-odd satellites join the network.

“The goal of Starlink is to create a network that will help provide Internet services to those who are not yet connected, and to provide reliable and affordable Internet across the globe,” according to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather for Wednesday’s planned launch had looked so-so and the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions.

“A mid-level inverted trough and associated easterly wave currently across the Bahamas will meander into the state over the next few days, bringing enhanced moisture, cloud cover, and instability with a higher coverage of showers and storms,” Space Force forecasters wrote.

They said Thursday’s forecast looks quite similar to Wednesday’s.

Earlier this month, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation was big enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in both the United States and southern Canada.

SpaceX has already offered Starlink Internet services to emergency responders in wildfire-stricken areas of Washington State.

Washington’s Hoh tribe is also using the Internet service to provide their members online education and telehealth services.



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Chernobyl-level radiation harms bumblebee reproduction

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Bees are more sensitive to radiation than scientists thought. Scientists found the reproduction rates of bumblebees declined significantly when exposed to Chernobyl-level radiation.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests radiation in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could impair pollination services, triggering wider ecological consequences than previously estimated.

Humans are not allowed to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the disaster area more directly impacted by the 1986 nuclear accident, the worst in history. However, the destroyed nuclear reactors are surrounded by forests that are populated by robust populations of birds, bears, bison, lynx, moose, wolves and more.

Efforts to gauge the effects of radiation contamination on insects have yielded mixed results in the past. While some studies have suggested insects are relatively radiation-resistant, others have demonstrated significant impairment.

When researchers exposed bumblebees in the lab to radiation dose of 100 µGyh-1, an amount approximating exposure inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, reproduction rates among the bees dropped between 30 and 45 percent.

Researchers found a direct correlation between the size of the radiation dose and reproduction rate declines. Lower levels of radiation had a smaller effect, while larger doses yielded greater declines.

Scientists were surprised to find they were able to detect reproductive rate declines at very small levels of radiation exposure.

“Our research provides much needed understanding as to the effects of radiation in highly contaminated areas and this is the first research to underpin the international recommendation for the effects of radiation on bees,” lead study author Katherine Raines, environmental scientist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said in a news release.



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