Grossmann: A Different Flavor – Just How Smart Are Octopuses?


28 November 2013

Octopuses have a rather creepy reputation. Let’s just say that, what the creeping spider is to dry land, the eight-tentacled octopus is to the sea — a “monster” of the deep. These creatures have thousands of suckers on their eight “arms,” squirt dark ink, change color, and can squeeze their, sometimes, large bodies through amazingly small holes. Also, they can move when they want to move having the ability to propel themselves by producing a jet of water in the same way jet engines propel aircraft through the air.

The octopus is a celebrated predator. Well equipped for the hunt, the octopus has a parrot-like beak, a tongue covered with teeth, and poisonous venom. Superficially, there’s nothing about the octopus that would put anyone in a warm or cuddly mood. But like some seemingly forbidding people you may have met, it seems that the better you get to know the octopus, the more favorable (and friendlier) your opinion becomes.

Scientists have recently discovered that octopuses might be intelligent – much more intelligent than anyone had ever suspected. However, this is one of those discoveries that seems like “yesterday’s news.” When you read accounts of octopus behavior, the fact that octopuses are intelligent is like the proverbial “elephant in the living room.” How could anyone have missed it?

Consider Otto, an octopus resident at the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany. Otto shares a large tank with hermit crabs, which he probably traumatizes on a regular basis with his ideas of fun. Among other activities, Otto likes to juggle the helpless crabs, throwing them, not in the air, but up above him into the tank’s water. Being repeatedly tossed by a two-handed juggler would be bad enough, but you can only cringe at the thought of the experience with eight-hands.

Otto’s behavior isn’t particularly unusual. In an experiment, Roland Anderson, gave octopuses small pill bottles, each of a different color, to evaluate the creatures’ color preferences. Most of the octopuses lost interest when they realized the bottles weren’t food, but one blew a “modulated” jet of water at the bottle sending it swirling to the other end of the tank and back to the sender – repeating this action 20 times. Anderson compared the action to the human version of bouncing a ball. Another octopus, in the same group, was caught using its water jet to propel its bottle back and forth over the surface of the water.

What’s so significant about all this? It’s play. Anderson’s observations appeared in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “Only intelligent animals play—animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.”

Although, sometimes, Otto seems more like a candidate for the staring role in an upcoming documentary, “When Good Octopuses Go Bad,” he demonstrates a mastery of tool-use when he throws stones into front glass of his tank (damaging the aquarium glass several times). In spite of Otto’s disruptions and vandalism, his behaviors are clearly intelligent.

Octopuses gather building materials as part of what is, sometimes, called their fortress behaviors. These creatures tend to settle in a location and fortify the perimeter with a variety of building materials. And, in the act of collecting these building materials, the octopus displays one of its most amazing characteristics. Most animals either use or discard an item that is of no immediate use. In other words, most animals have no ability to delay gratification and, therefore, do not appreciate the need to find, hold, or transport items that may be of value at a later time.

The Veined Octopus, however, retrieves discarded coconut shells, transports them over a distance, and reassembles them to build a shelter. This behavior demonstrates selection of a tool and, then, holding the tool exclusively for a later use.

You might think of this behavior as resembling grocery shopping. When you go to the store, you don’t eat the food you want straight off the shelves and, then, leave without taking any food with you. Rather, you gather food, groceries, and take it home for future use.

And, it so happens that octopuses often gather food in a way not so different from human grocery shopping. As it hunts, this creature picks up all the food it can carry and transports the load home. It will eat the food, at its leisure, later. With eight arms, an octopus can carry a lot of food, but sometimes its eyes are bigger than its eight-armed carrying capacity. If it finds its load is too heavy for the trip home, it simply makes an unscheduled stop, eats its “groceries” down to a portable volume and, then, continues home with what’s left.

But octopuses demonstrate other intelligent behaviors. They are also problem solvers. Wilson Menashi designed a puzzle consisting of three plexiglas cubes each with a different type of latch. When food was placed in the first box and given to an octopus, the creature quickly managed to figure out how to open the box. Then, the first box was locked in the second box. Again, the octopus quickly learned to open both boxes to get to the food. The same swift mastery followed the addition of a third box. Sadly, when the octopus’s food of choice, crab, is unavailable, some octopuses turn their problem solving abilities to crime. That is, octopuses sometimes rob lobster traps, which they learn to open with relative ease.

So, you would never want to snooze on the beach with a crab in your pocket. That crab would be awfully tempting to passing octopus. Oh, . . . you thought you’d be safe because you weren’t in the water? Surprise! Many octopuses seem never to have learned that they are sea-dwelling creatures. They tend to jump onto land at the least provocation.

An octopus was recently, not just caught on land, but also caught on video grabbing a snack on the beach — completely out of the water. These creatures like to eat crabs so much that they have been known to climb on board fishing boats, jump into containers of dead crabs, and pig-out. As a matter of fact, aquariums sometimes have difficulty keeping these creatures in the water.

Otto, for example, thought the overhead light in the Sea Star Aquarium was too bright, and his irritation was only relieved by occasional mysterious power failures. While the failures gave Otto a break from the bright light, the cessation in the filtration systems in the aquarium’s tanks was a positive danger. When the power outages became more frequent, the staff organized a stake-out of the area, day and night, to find the cause. On the third night, Otto climbed out of his tank and directed his jet-stream of water at the irritating light above his tank and continued to do so until the system shorted and the power failed. The light has been re-installed in a location beyond the range of Otto’s water-jet.

Octopuses frequently put their water-jets to other creative uses. Octopus Truman of the New England Aquarium developed an aversion to one volunteer and used his water-jet to soak her with salt water at every opportunity. She eventually quit her volunteer position, but returned for a visit a few months later. As she entered the lab she was drenched in saltwater by Truman’s jet. Apparently, Truman remembered her. He had not sprayed anyone with water since her departure months earlier.

Researching her senior thesis in the octopus lab at Middlebury College, Alexa Warburton often struggled to remove reluctant octopuses from their tanks. The creatures had mastered all the skills I employed on a particular day when I tried to avoid attending the first grade. The octopuses would hide in the corners of their tanks or hold on to objects and not let go. In fact, octopuses in captivity escape their tanks with great frequency. When the creatures were removed from their tank, a few used the net as a kind of trampoline bouncing off the net and onto the floor. Then, they’d make a run for it. And they’d “run,” Warburton emphasized, “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat.” “It’s so weird!”

When you understand how octopuses behave, it’s tough to understand how their intelligence could have been overlooked for so long. Perhaps, in the past, science has been too physiologically minded.

For example, several species of birds have recently demonstrated remarkably high levels of intelligence and even self-awareness. The last common ancestor of human beings and birds roamed the earth about 300 million years ago. During the last 300 million years, the brains of birds and mammals developed along separate lines. Scientists were sure that the mammalian brain’s neocortex made certain species, including human beings, self-aware (i.e., conscious). Problem. Several species of birds pass all the self-awareness tests with flying colors, but their brains are the size of walnuts and they have no neocortex.

Then, there’s the octopus. Octopuses are mollusks, invertebrates, closely related to the clam. Clams don’t even have brains. The last common ancestor of human beings and octopuses lived between 500 and 700 million years ago. From that point on, human and octopus brains developed along separate lines in quite different environments. The octopus brain is about the size of a walnut with only about 130 million neurons compared to the 100 billion of the typical human brain. However, you don’t need these numbers to see some staggering differences. For example, humans have one brain, but “three-fifths of the octopus’s neurons” are in the octopus’s arms and not their “head.” It seems that intelligence doesn’t have as much to do with brain size as was once supposed.

Perhaps, the intelligence of octopuses was overlooked because of their lack of social behavior. These creatures are one of the most unsocial animals you could imagine. Their contacts with their fellow creatures result in either one octopus eating the other or mating. There are no other social encounters with their peers. Period. In the first instance, predation, one octopus dies when it’s eaten. In the second, mating, both octopuses die because disorientation and death follow swiftly.

Much of our appraisal of the intelligence of any animal is based on observation of social interaction. But, in the case of the unsocial octopus, you have to observe its relationship with its inanimate, physical environment to appreciate its intelligent behavior and evaluate the scope of its intelligence. Strangely, the captive octopuses that are the subject of study in laboratories seem to enjoy a richer relationship with their human captors, than any of their own species. But, perhaps, even this relationship is the simple result of the dependence of the captive octopuses on their human captors for survival (food).

Maybe it’s the plain strangeness of both the octopus and its intelligence that so long delayed the “discovery” of the creature’s intelligent behavior. Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith compared encountering the octopus with “meeting an intelligent alien.” And, indeed, everything seems so “out-of-whack” when you learn about the octopus. For example, octopus communication is limited to changes of color. An octopus uses color changes to camouflage itself, express emotions, and warn off (frighten) predators. But the octopus’s use of a wide range of color displays becomes confusing when you discover that these creatures are colorblind. But, then, you discover that octopus “skin contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye.” So, octopuses may be able to see color with their skin.

In the end, what can we say about the octopus as an intelligent being? It is an alien. An immensely ancient alien that evolved on the ocean floor — the oldest and most enduring environment provided by the hydrosphere we call Earth. However, “alien” is a relative term. Compared to the octopus, we are the newcomers. We are one of a group of strange, and relatively new, life forms that live on those limited peaks that rise above and beyond the more natural aquatic environment. Those peaks rise up into a strange rarefied level of atmosphere—a level, not of water, but composed entirely of gases, nitrogen and oxygen.

As intelligent beings, we continue to confront the all too obvious evidence that “we are not alone.” But I’m not talking about intelligent life on other planets. “We are not alone” on our own planet. The creatures around us have developed intelligence and self-awareness but, often, not “on our terms.” These “others” have developed out of their own environmental and physiological roots. Our planet is home to more and stranger environments (worlds) than we regularly or comfortably imagine. It seems that intelligence and self-awareness are not a single, defined point at one end of a yard stick. Rather, as Dr. Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge suggests, intelligence and self-awareness may come “in flavors.”

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Grossmann: What Would DARPA Do Without Bees?


21 November 2013

The fate of bees, generally, is a matter of great concern these days.  Bee populations throughout the world, and particularly in the United States and Europe, are dropping rapidly and mysteriously.  Why are bees so important?  Agricultural production. Without the bees’ unique service as pollinators, the value of yearly agriculture output would drop by billions and billions of dollars.  But dollars aren’t the worst part of the problem.  Agricultural production is food.  Without bees, we’d have much less food than the minimum required feed the Earth’s population.  So, without bees, a good portion of the people on earth will begin to starve – quickly.  What would we do in a world without bees?  You’re probably hearing more and more discussion on the topic, but not in this article.

Let’s ignore that pesky food production/global starvation issue for a moment and consider another bee-related question:

What would DARPA do in a world without bees?

What does DARPA need with bees?  Well, these amazing insects are a seemingly endless wellspring of unique abilities.  When the DEA isn’t planning to use bees for security-related activities, DARPA is studying this insect’s unique flight capabilities.  But, I hear the reader asking, “security-related activities?”  Yes, bees are being groomed to replace those large cumbersome flea traps on four legs — drug-sniffing dogs.  A small hive of honey bees is so much easier to carry and care for than those hounds with their endless vaccinations, flea powder, and licensing requirements.

The bees don’t even have to leave home, but live in a mobile home or, rather, a box.  When air is blown through their “buzz box,” their responsive behavior alerts officers to the presence of drugs.  UK researchers beat everyone to this adaptation, but someday soon, there may be a canine unemployment issue as man’s best friend starts pounding the pavement looking for work after losing out to the new, cheaper, and less care-intensive honeybee.

As bees are drawn out of our agricultural fields to secure our borders (and other places) against drugs, it’s interesting to note that, even as bee populations decline, demand for the amazingly diverse talents of these critters keeps increasing.  But let’s leave the story of the bees’ role in the war on drugs for another time and get back to DARPA.

DARPA’s first interest is drones.  Not the bee kind of drones – male bees — but mechanical drones.  More precisely, flying drones.  What’s so special about bees when it comes to flying drones?  Well, DARPA is trying to build a drone that is about size of a bee.  Just as important, this bee-sized mini-drone must maneuver like a bee.  What’s so special about the flight of bees?

There are two special things.  The first thing is not only characteristic of the flight of bees, but of the flight of all insects.  After bird-sized flying drones were developed, the next step was an insect-sized drone.  Simple enough.  You just shrink the bird drone down to insect size and – voila – you have an insect sized drone.  But you don’t — because the shrunken drone won’t fly.  UCLA Roboticist, Ronald Fearing, explains, “the rules of aerodynamics change at very tiny scales and require wings that flap in precise ways — a huge engineering challenge.”

Apparently, the relatively large bird can afford to be a bit sloppy with its wing movements, but insects must be much more precise.  Of course, it would help to know exactly how insects fly.  Contrary to the popular perception that science “knows everything,” only recently have researchers begun to understand insect flight.

Just a few decades ago, you’d sometimes hear the inaccurate assertion that scientists “said” that insect flight was impossible.  Although probably no scientist ever said that, there was a grain of truth in the statement.  In fact, until recently, scientists didn’t know how insects flew.  That is, there was no theoretical description that could account for how these tiny creatures remained airborne.  The relatively recent development of high speed microphotography together with the more recent intense technological interest in the flight of insects has led to substantial advances in the understanding of insect aerodynamics.

Dragonflies have been studied to determine how their front and rear wings coordinate to perform certain maneuvers, most notably, how they hover.   And butterflies are the subject of intense study with the surprising discovery that even though many insects fly, different varieties use their wings in very different ways to accomplish maneuvers that have yet to be robotically duplicated on any scale – large or small.

Why all of this interest in insects all of a sudden?  Because DARPA wants drones with certain, new capacities that were missing in past drone technology.   To meet DARPA’s requirements, drones must be built to perform more like . . . wildlife.

In the 1950’s, the sci-fi vision of robotic technology was both exotic and strange.  The technology of the future was envisioned and presented as something completely different and contrary to our natural biological surroundings.  However, when technology confronted reality, we biological organisms seem to have had the last laugh because we could (and still can) do a whole lot of extremely useful things that our most sophisticated technology cannot.

The jeep took a basic automobile and raised the center of gravity, increased the size and scale of the automotive suspension system and produced spectacular off-road performance for a machine with wheels.  But the wheel, itself, was limited.  Every Rover we’ve sent to Mars ended its life when it got stuck.  Human beings aren’t the strongest animal in the forest, but if just two of us were with those Rovers on Mars, we’d have extended their useful lives by getting them “un-stuck” in short order.  Why?  Because we have a repertoire of movements and leverage that we can use to apply force in almost any direction.  The best of those early sci-fi ’bots looked high-tech but, in fact, were functionally stunted.

When sci-fi was still dominated by those inhuman and unnatural versions of mechanistic technology, a new technological methodology was, quietly, born.  “Biomimetics” was a term used to describe the development of technology designed to imitate and replicate the activities of biological systems and organisms.   Then, the term “bionic” was coined to describe a technology incorporating a “function copied from nature.”  When Hollywood got a hold of the term “bionic,” the “Six Million Dollar Man” hit the small screen.  But Hollywood’s version of the term “bionic” was just too interesting to be seriously “scientific,” and the term “bionic” fell into scientific oblivion.

The gap was finally filled with the introduction of the term “biomimicry,” which has been widely adopted to describe any technology imitating (copied) from nature.  But, in some contexts, biomimicry is more of a necessity than a choice.  If you want drones that work in a particular way, and the only known example of such performance is a biological organism, you’ll either have to imitate it or forget the project altogether.

And this brings us back to the bees.

The second special thing about bees is their flying ability.  Among their fellow insects, bees are the virtuosos of flight.  These insects can fly faster than most other insects.  They can also fly slower, hover, in a way that most other insects cannot. And bees are remarkably precise in their flight.  They maneuver with a precision almost unparalleled in the insect world.  If you were DARPA and wanted to develop an insect-sized drone, you’d want its capabilities to be as close to those of a bee as possible.

Harvard’s “Micro Air Vehicles Project” is developing a robot that is intended to duplicate the functions of a honeybee.  One day, it is hoped, these robo-bees will be engineered to fly in swarms, live in artificial hives, and locate sources of honey.   But that goal is a long, long way off.  If you believe some of the stories you read on the internet, the robo-bee is waiting like a vulture to take over when our natural biological honeybees die out.  But, alas, it isn’t so.

Robo-Bee is a sensation because it can fly.  But the word “fly” is used in the most restricted and technical sense.  For most of the last few years, Robo-Bee has been able to flap its wings, and rise into the air – “fly.”  However, when it does, it shoots from its starting position across the room and crashes into the nearest wall.  Flight over.  Total flight time – about a second.

Recently, however, researchers have figured out how to guide the robo-bee in flight.  Now, with the latest guidance breakthrough, the robo-bee can be made “to pitch and roll in a predetermined direction” and, then, it crashes into the nearest wall.

While Harvard is working on Robo-Bee’s flight, you’ve got to wonder whose working on the crashes?  Put another way, Robo-Bee crashes because it can’t land.  And landing is the most challenging maneuver of successful flight.  What insect, do you suppose, displays the most precise and graceful skill in landing?  You guessed it.  Landing is, perhaps, the bee’s most amazing talent.

Not only are bees remarkable for their landings, but where they land sets them apart from other airborne insects as well.  They can land anywhere – not just on flat, surfaces, but on irregular, ridged, and vertical surfaces. But knowing that the bees “can do it” is one thing.  Understanding “how they do it” is another.

What bees can do that so many other insects can’t is land almost anywhere smoothly.  In order to land smoothly, a flying object must slow down almost to a stop at the landing location.  So, landing isn’t just about the bee putting its, er, ah, . . . feet (or whatever) onto the ground.  Landing is about speed and distance.  To do it right, you have to estimate your distance from the place you intend to land and vary your speed so that you have just about stopped by the time you reach your intended landing spot.  At least, you have to do all this if you want the bee’s characteristically smooth landing.  A crash is a landing too.  Just not a smooth one.

In the old days, human pilots made these estimations using nothing more than their vision.  As human beings, we have two eyes set slightly apart.  Each eye relays a slightly different image to the brain.  Our brain compensates so that we are aware of only one image.  But, without even realizing it, the slight differences in the images are translated by the brain into an awareness of the relative distances of the objects around us.  Everything from navigating around objects in our home or apartment to driving on the roads would present difficulties, and even dangers, without our “stereo” vision.  And, with nothing more than this vision, aviators used to gauge their speed relative to the distance of the chosen landing strip to bring aircraft to as slow a speed as possible at the point at which the landing gear made first contact with the ground.

However, pilots don’t use plain old vision these days.  Sophisticated computers estimate distances for professional pilots.  This can be done with or without the aid of global positioning signals.  Computers can use no more than bits of data, distance from the destination, direction, and speed, to decelerate an aircraft to the slowest possible speed at the moment the landing gear touch the ground.

Bees, however, don’t have the equivalent of human “stereoscopic” vision.  And they don’t have the benefit of computers.  So, how do the bees land so well?  The fact that bees seem to be able to land almost anywhere has provoked extensive study.  A new discovery about just how bees accomplish their remarkable landings has been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Mandyam Srinivasan at the University of Queensland explains that bees “watch” an object, their destination, as they fly toward it.  The rate at which their intended landing place “zooms in” tells the bee when to slow down and stop.  However unfamiliar this method must seem to human beings, it allows bees to make almost perfect landings most of the time without any other information about distance or speed.

Professor Srinivasan uses an analogy from simulated interstellar space travel.  As you approach a particular star, two things happen.  First, the other stars, around your destination, seem to move away, while your destination star appears to become larger.  In bees, nature has parlayed these simple observations into an amazingly sophisticated navigation and flight methodology.  And researchers have been able to reduce the bees’ landing strategy to a mathematical model for guiding landings.

Professor Srinivasan added that this newest research can produce a substantial savings in the design and production of drone technology.  An insect-sized mini-drone would not need radar, sonar or laser beams to determine surface speed and distances for landing.  Dropping this expensive equipment would not only make the mini-drone cheaper, but the lighter weight would extend the drone’s range.  Also, the same radar, sonar or laser beams creates detectible electronic signatures, which can compromise the drone’s stealth.  In contrast, the “vision-based system” needs nothing more sophisticated than a video camera of the type “found in smart phones.”

So, someday, with further development, our bee-sized drones will be able to fly, maneuver, and land smoothly.  But there’s still another question.  Why do we need bee-sized drones at all?

Well, if you’re DARPA, you want these drones for reconnaissance and surveillance.  Our bee-like drones would be useful in both departments.  Because of their size, they are stealthy – small is more difficult to see.  Also, because they are small, they can squeeze into and under objects and examine places too small for human beings and, therefore, not accessible to traditional aerial or satellite reconnaissance cameras.  These small drones could examine areas and locate obstructions, unusual terrain, explosives and other potential dangers.

The other side of the reconnaissance and surveillance coin is search and rescue.  Drones of this size are invaluable aids and can be used to examine the interior of collapsed building squeezing into the tightest spaces.  They can locate injured victims as well as potential dangers to be avoided by search and rescue personnel.

One of DARPA’s high priorities is the development of mini flying drones.  But what would a DARPA representative have said if, starting from scratch, they were asked how they wanted their new mini-drone to work?  I can imagine a long silence.  Then, catching sight of a nearby honeybee, they would point directly at the bee and say, “exactly like that.”  If there had never been any bees, who would, or could, even imagine the performance capabilities of these amazing insects?

We aren’t “thinking-up” new technologies.  Actually, we’re figuring out ways to technologically imitate an extremely old “technology,” organic life.  Bees aren’t just useful workers in our agricultural fields (and soon, perhaps, our boarders and airports), but an inspiration for what would, otherwise, remain unimagined technologies.  Today, we often hear the question: What would we do in world without the work of the honeybee?  But no one asks, a perhaps less important, but more surprising question: What would DARPA do without the inspiring model of that same bee?


Grossmann: The Bumblebee and Robo-Snake on Mars – The Fantasy


14 November 2013

Both NASA and ESA (European Space Administration) are planning a mission to Mars.  But, in this day and age, who isn’t?  India is planning a Mars mission.  A Dutch company named, Mars One, isn’t just planning a mission, but a colony.  What’s interesting is how they plan to finance the mission.  The Mars One colonists’ transportation to, and colony on, the red planet will be financed by a reality show starring – you guessed it – the colonists, themselves, on Mars.  If this seems kind of “out there,” so is the planned departure date.  Their first group is scheduled leave about twenty years from now.

However the NASA and ESA missions are serious business because their potential colonists certainly have the right stuff.  NASA is considering bumblebees and the ESA is considering a robotic snake.  Amazingly, of all the possible candidates, the bees and the robotic snake seem most naturally suited to the challenges of life on Mars.

The rather rotund bumblebee wouldn’t “cut a good figure” in the astro-insect selection process, but appearances can be deceiving.  When NASA discovered that the ideal atmospheric pressure for space facilities was considerably below the normal pressure found on Earth, the search was on for the most adaptable contestants.  At the ideal atmospheric pressure of 52 kilopascals (kPa), human beings were burdened because this is only about half the sea level atmospheric pressure here on Earth.  Honeybees gave up completely at 62 kPa.  But “Bumbles” kept right on going – gathering honey and pollinating flowers at the ideal 52 kPa.  Below that pressure, “Bumbles” slowed down, but didn’t stop.  And when, at a meager 30 kPa, the bumblebees finally lost their ability to fly, they went on working!  Crawling from bloom to bloom, the bumblebees went on pollinating and gathering honey.  What can we say?  The few, the proud, the bumblebees!

Of course, Robo-Snake, as a robot, has few issues adapting physically to an alien environment.  A robotic snake will bring a specific skill to the red planet that a biological snake enjoys on earth – the remarkable ability to travel over and through certain types of almost impassable terrain.  Robo-Snake’s amazingly snake-like movement allows it to explore and investigate places that no human, conventional robot, or vehicle could go.  This ‘bot’s serpentine motion produces a kind of locomotion that allows it to travel almost anywhere without getting stuck.

While writing a previous post on this subject, my mind kept wandering to the sci-fi and fantasy possibilities.  Every time I though of a bumblebee and a robotic snake on Mars, I couldn’t help thinking what a good Disney movie that mission would make.  Of course, in actual fact, if they make the cut, “Bumbles” and “Robo-Snake” would be traveling to Mars on different missions sponsored by different space agencies.

But let’s forget the facts and stick to the fantasy.  I had to wonder: what if Bumbles and Robo-Snake teamed up on Mars to form one of those classic duos that are the stuff of sci-fi fantasy?  As I thought about the pair and their possible adventures on the red planet, I couldn’t help thinking in terms of those famous sci-fi fantasy teams of the past.

I imagine Bumbles and Robo-Snake wandering the Martian landscape in a feature film (or weekly episodes of a TV series) struggling to survive.  Of course, they stumble into adventure after adventure as they explore, not only the physical terrain, but discover unknown and exotic Martian flora and fauna.  Perhaps, other interplanetary visitors from other star systems would pop-in, from time to time, and confront the bee-snake team with novel challenges in which the duo’s unique relationship would lead them to a successful resolution.  Sort of like . . .

Sort of like the relationship between the Robinson family and the “General Utility Non-theorizing Environmental Control Robot, Model B9.”   The television show was the 1965 series, Lost in Space. Model B9, unimaginatively referred to as “Robot” by the cast members, had one of the most memorable lines in television, history — “Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!”

Maybe Bumbles and Robo-Snake could be stranded on Mars with a group of much less well adapted human companions (like the Mars One colonists).  Because Bumbles and Robo-Snake are uniquely adapted to the Martian environment, they would be well suited to the job of rescuing their hapless human companions who would, on a weekly basis, manage to fall into some kind of trouble or involve themselves in some kind of misadventure.

Maybe one of the colonists would play the role of Lost in Space’s subversive and, then, eccentrically silly Dr. Smith.  The new version of the Dr. Smith character might arrive with the Mars One colonists.  However, this Dr. Smith might be an agent from a rival TV network featuring a rival reality show.   His job is to assure that Mars One colonists’ own reality show suffers dismal ratings and cancellation.  Or, maybe even more darkly (but realistically), the new Dr. Smith might be an agent from Mars One itself.  If the Mars One reality show’s ratings don’t climb fast enough, the new Dr. Smith has been sent to “eliminate” the colonists swiftly and completely in order to accomplish a de facto cancellation.

Of course, Bumbles and Robo-Snake will be there to foil Dr. Smith’s mission and rescue the colonists while forging an even more successful TV series about a bumblebee and robotic snake.  This assures the survival of the human colonists after the unexpected cancellation of their reality show.  However, “Danger, Bumbles.  Danger.” might be too cliché to recycle, so there needs to be some work on a new script for this new “non-reality” show.

Lost in Space’s Model B9’s fame was great, but its career was limited.  Like the original Star Trek cast, B9 found itself hopelessly typecast.  After suffering a relatively short downward spiral, rescue and repair came from TV and film producer Kevin Burns with whom the B9 enjoys a comfortable, private and, even, reclusive retirement.   Because of the attention and adulation B9 receives from nostalgic fans, Kevin Burns commissioned the creation of a B9 “clone” – a replica that is displayed on tours and at conventions.

Less known is the story of B9’s stunt man or, rather, stunt robot.  In fact, two versions of B9 were built for the original TV series.  The other, just as imaginatively, termed “stunt robot” was featured in distance “or hazardous shots.”  Like the star, after the series ended, the stunt double fell into a downward spiral of disrepair until it was rescued and refurbished by the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, in Seattle Washington, where it enjoys a more public retirement to this day.

B9 was created by mechanical designer Robert Kinoshita.  With such talents, wouldn’t it have been great if Kinoshita had designed other movie robots?  It would, and he did.  In fact, Robert Kinoshita designed, perhaps, the première sci-fi robot of all time.

Right after the brooding and reclusive Dr. Mobius unlocked the most basic secrets of the Krell, in the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet, he built Robby the Robot.  But let’s not get too far ahead of our story.

How could this play out with our own film duo? In our version of the story, Bumbles, with the help of Robo-Snake, discover the secrets of an ancient and extinct Martian civilization.  In the process, they unleash a mysterious force of which they, themselves, are unaware.  After the human colonists fall victim to a mysterious predator, Bumbles is left alone, with her faithful robot snake sidekick, to pursue her investigations in the solitude she loves.

Years later, a rescue ship arrives with a small crew of humans and (appropriately) a contingent of bumblebees.  “Bumbles” warns the rescue ship’s crew not to land on the surface because of a mysterious danger – the nature of which Bumbles herself does not consciously understand.   Of course, there could be a romantic subtheme.  Perhaps, like Morbius, Bumbles could have a single daughter bee who is wooed by a drone bee from the rescue ship.

However, I don’t know if Robo-Snake could equal the sheer range of Robby.  That robot could do almost everything.  Certainly, Robby kept pace with Star Trek’s replicator when it created a large quantity of hard liquor at the request of one of the rescuing crew members.

Whatever the storyline, Robo-Snake faces a major challenge if it is to step into the shoes of the famous Robby the Robot.  After raising the bar for all movie robots with his first 1956 performance, Robby went on to a remarkable career.  He escaped being typecast in Forbidden Planet (although, with robots, some typecasting is unavoidable).  To his credit, Robby has worked consistently in Hollywood including appearances on The Doby Gillis Show, The Twilight Zone (3 episodes), Hazel, The Addams Family, Lost in Space, The Monkeys, Wonder Woman, Mork and Mindy, The Love Boat, a cameo appearance in Gremlins and, most recently, in a 2012 General Electric commercial.

Robby enjoys a semi retirement in the collection of William Malone.  Robby’s early career was marred by the same harassment from adoring fans that so many other stars have suffered.  Souvenir-hunting fans, twice, roughed Robby up so badly that he had to be refurbished.  On both occasions, original spare parts created for the film Forbidden Planet were called into service to restore Robby to the perfect physical health typical of a well maintained robot.  But back, again, to our bee-snake team.

Let’s not limit our vision.  What if the Bumbles and Robo-Snake combination generates a successful film or series?  What next?  Would a spin-off be in order?  The real Robo-Snake is being considered as a sidekick, but not to a bee or human being.  Instead. Robo-Snake is being developed to assist another robotic device — The Mars Rover.

To its credit, the Mars Rover is an amazingly well-engineered vehicle.  However, no matter how serviceable, it has a daunting task — to be operated by remote control as it navigates a rough and rocky terrain.  The result is that Mars Rovers usually end their serviceable careers by getting permanently stuck.  Is there a solution?  Enter Robo-Snake.

The Robo-Snake that may eventually go to Mars will have one of two possible configurations.  It will either travel with the Rover as a portable robot to be released to investigate nooks and crannies too small for the Rover as well as areas in which the Rover is more likely to get stuck.  The other design would permanently attach Robo-Snake to the Rover as a kind of arm – or more picturesquely – a kind of tentacle.  The Robo-Snake arm, if long enough, could reach out to examine all those nooks and crannies, while also performing other functions as well  Maybe, the most important “other function” would be as an arm to help the Rover get un-stuck, after it squeezes itself into too tight a spot.  In fact, the tentacle-like arm could grab nearby objects to help pull the Rover free of an obstruction or push the Rover out of a tight spot.

However, from an entertainment standpoint, the Rover and his pet Robo-Snake, as a team, would defy the conventional wisdom that robots are not all that interesting in leading roles.  With only two robots, how interesting could the relationship be?  When have just a couple of robots, alone, entertained anyone?

Well, it happened at least once.  R2-D2 and C3PO formed the ideal, model relationship for our Rover – Robo Snake team.  With the Rover designed as an all terrain vehicle and the Snake designed to behave . . . like a snake, there are bound to be temperamental or, rather, programming differences between the two, just as there were differences between the effervescent R2-D2 and the diplomatic C3PO.  I can imagine a constant dialog between the Snake and Rover warning, admonishing, and critiquing (if not nagging) each other over every petty detail of their mission in a style uniquely pioneered by the Star Wars robotic duo.

Aside from the progressive improvement in the quality of special effects, the introduction of R2-D2 and C3PO brought an entirely new dimension to the portrayal of robots on screen.  While sci-fi aficionados will point, quite accurately, to the distinct personal eccentricities and mannerisms of almost every movie and television robot, the robotic Star Wars duo left subtlety out of the equation displaying quite decidedly dimensioned personality traits.

R2-D2, the small message carrying droid of the first (or is it the IVth) Star Wars film, introduced Luke Skywalker to, at least, the image of Princess Leia.  Then, R2D2 led the future Jedi Knight to his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  R2-D2 is always accompanied by C3PO, a “protocol droid” developed to assist in matters of “etiquette, customs, and translation”   And it is this last ability, translation, that defined C3PO’s role in relation to R2-D2 who, while occasionally uttering surprisingly understandable whistles and chirps, had no human language capabilities.  C3PO translated R2D2’s statements for the benefit of human listeners (and audiences).  The two displayed an almost childlike relationship.  They engaged in busy conversations and seemed to be on the verge of bickering rather than chatting most of the time.

The rather sophisticated character development of these robots, in contrast to earlier robotic film stars, was illustrated by actor Anthony Daniels’ refusal to take the offered role of C3PO.  After all, what actor would want the limited role of a robot?  However, after reading the script, Daniels accepted the role realizing the substance and range offered by the robotic performance.

Likewise, R2D2 was more than a prop — even behind the scenes.  Portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor said, “As soon as R2-D2 comes on the set, everyone goes a bit silly.”  McGregor said that the small robot inspired affection.  It surely did with no less than George Lucas who has said that R2D2 was his favorite character.

The Robot Hall of Fame was created in 2003 by Carnegie Mellon University “to recognize excellence in robotics technology.”  Since then, a number of real and fictional robots have been induced:

Robby the Robot inducted 2004

R2-D2 inducted 2003

C3PO inducted 2004

To its shame, the Robot Hall of Fame has yet to induct B9 of Lost in Space.  In my opinion, this is a glaring (and almost unforgivable) omission.  B9 was not even among the candidates considered in 2012.  However, in an NBC People’s Choice Poll, B9 received many write-in votes.  More surprising was a respectable showing in the same poll by the animated robot “Bender” from Futurama.  Even as a fan of that series, I must confess that, to win induction, a robot should at least rise to some standards.  Unfortunately, Bender takes pride in sinking below them all.

What would my favorite Cinderella robotic candidate be?  Well, if I had to pick, it would be Red Dwarf’s “Kryten” portrayed by Robert Llewellyn.

And so, dear reader, I will end with the obvious question:  What or who is your pick as the best sci-fi fantasy robot of all time?

Grossmann: Our Collapsing Planet—Aquifers & Sinkholes in Salty Kansas


7 November 2013

“Aquifer” is a sophisticated name for what we used to call groundwater.  You dig down, and you find water at a certain depth.  That’s the water table – the underground “water level.”  That’s what makes water wells possible.   Groundwater is found in formations called aquifers.  And aquifers are a little like lakes.  But, unlike lakes, the water doesn’t rest in a depression on the surface of the land.  Rather, groundwater permeates the land like water permeates a sponge.  You can’t see or feel an aquifer even when you standing on the ground right above it.

Aquifers are also like lakes because they are bodies of water with a bottom and distinct “sides” or boundaries.  So, you can dig in one place and find water near the surface.  However, in a second place, just a few miles away, you might dig and dig, but find no water at all.  In the first place, you were above an aquifer but, in the second, you weren’t. [1]

In Kansas, farming was very difficult until they discovered ground water in 1911. [2] They didn’t just find some water.  They found a lot of it.  Relative privation gave way to agricultural prosperity.  At the time, the best “explanation” for the water was that there was an “underground river.”  And, from that “river,” water was drawn for irrigation.  Kansas farmer Rodger Funk remembers that there was also a conventional wisdom:  They said the river was inexhaustible.  Now, Funk laments, “they were wrong.” [3]

What “they” called an underground river was, in fact, the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive reservoir of groundwater covering a substantial part of eight states from Texas to South Dakota.  The water accumulated in the ground thousands of years ago as the last glaciers from the last ice age melted. [4] Replenished by light yearly rains, the water remained intact until it was discovered, but misidentified as an underground river in 1911.  Pumping water from the aquifer for agricultural and, later, residential use began.  Then, slowly, the groundwater began to disappear.  Slowly, but surely.

The history of groundwater use in Kansas was the focus of a recent study by researchers from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  In 1960, the Kansas aquifer’s water reserves had declined only 3% as a result of systematic use. However, by 2010, the reserves had declined by 30%.  And, with projected usage, we can expect a 69% decline by 2060. Aquifers can run dry and, with the modest rainfall in the region, it would take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to replenish this massive aquifer once it was “tapped out.” [5]

The study’s lead researcher, David Steward, Professor of Civil Engineering at Kansas State University explained that no one can be sure how long the aquifer’s waters will last.  The study proposed a plan to reduce water usage through more efficient use in the hope of maintaining the aquifer, as a water source, indefinitely.  That would be a positive step, but the challenge is to actually reduce water use.  While not all states touched by the aquifer have such a positive prognosis, there is reason for cautious optimism for the future of the Kansas portion of the Ogallala Aquifer. [6]

However, low water production is only one of the dangers posed by a depleted aquifer.  Pumping aquifers dry can create another problem: Subsidence. Perhaps a more familiar term would be sinkholes.

An aquifer’s waters provide internal support for the soil around the groundwater deposit.  When the water disappears too quickly, air fills the void left in the pores of the rock and the earth.  And air is anything but good supporting material.  So, a dry aquifer may not only mean a sudden lack of water for agriculture and residential use.   It also can “result in land subsidence, cracking house foundations, and changing drainage patterns.” [6.1]

Strictly speaking, sinkholes form in lands with substantial limestone strata beneath the surface.  Water permeates and flows through limestone and, very gradually, erodes it away.  This is how the typical cave is formed.  Over extremely long periods of time, the limestone bed become thin and finally collapses.  When it does, the soil above it also collapses.  Suddenly, a small but significant area of the earth’s surface disappears into a roughly circular hole.  The effects are sudden and sometimes devastating. [7]

Quite specifically, subsidence might be the more technical term to apply to a collapse caused by air in the soil resulting from depletion of an aquifer.  With subsidence, everything just starts to sink. [8] Mexico City, for example, was built on an old lakebed resting above a large underground aquifer.  Because the city has no other cost effective source of water, this aquifer, though not dry, was substantially depleted by heavy use during the last decades of the 20th century.  The resulting land subsidence is so severe that whole areas of city are sinking rapidly.  Not only are foundations undermined, but the sewer system is subject to continual damage.  In spite of constant repair efforts, fresh and contaminated water become mixed spreading contamination to the city’s drinking water. [9]

Last summer, Kansas was in the middle of a draught.  On July 31, 2013, Wyatt Hoss noticed a 90 foot deep roughly round crater in the pasture north of Sharon Springs in Wallace County, Kansas.  The sinkhole was 200-300 feet across.  The discovery turned the area into a tourist attraction or in the words of Wyatt Hoss’s 82 year old mother, Margaret, “a three-ring circus.”  A local commentator, Kate Wilkins-Wells, was amused to see a TV reporter on the scene standing within the concentric fissures near the rim of crater while soberly warning would-be visitors that the place the reporter was standing was too dangerous for curious visitors. [post] The pasture became a local tourist attraction much to the chagrin of property (and sinkhole) owner Margaret Hoss who valued her privacy. [10]

The sinkhole was in an area of the county with little oil, gas, or groundwater extractions.  But there was a draught in progress.  And the sinkhole was quite near the Ogallala aquifer which is noticeably thin or absent in that area.  So, could the Wallace County sinkhole be the result of aquifer depletion? [11]

Probably not, The Director of the Kansas Geological Survey, Rex Buchanan, quickly noted that, in spite of the closeness of a relatively depleted portion of the aquifer, both water extraction and activities related to oil or gas extraction had been scarce in the area.  [12]

But if the cause wasn’t a depleted aquifer or the extraction of oil or gas, what happened?   And, unlike most areas vulnerable to frequent sinkholes, Kansas doesn’t have underground limestone deposits or the caves that go with them.  So, it had to be something else.  To find that “something else,” you need to look at the history of sinkholes in Kansas.

Not only have there been a lot of sinkholes in the past, but Wallace County is famous for its “collapses” including the Smoky Basin Cave-in that developed about 5 miles east of Sharon Springs in 1926 and grew to an estimated 350-by-250-foot irregular oval.  [13] And, in the more distant past, another sinkhole, the circular Old Maid Pool, is located about 6 miles northwest of Sharon Springs. [14]

But what could be causing these sinkholes?

Salt.  Kansas is unusually rich in halite deposits.  Halite is rock salt.  The presence of a 200 foot thick bed of rock salt about 2,000 feet below the surface likely led to the formation of the old sinkholes as well as this newest addition in Wallace County. [15]

Why is salt so important to the development of sinkholes?  Well, you have to see the effect of water on salt to understand.  Exposed to water, salt dissolves almost instantly.  And I mean instantly.  In other words, it was the presence, rather than the absence, of groundwater “penetrating through fractures in overlying layers” of soil that dissolved the salt and “eventually created a substantial void.” “When the rock above could no longer sustain the weight, everything from the surface down suddenly collapsed.”

So, before we look for water depletion or imprudent oil or mineral extraction, subsurface salt deposits are a notoriously “usual suspect” in sinkhole formation.   Indeed salt has been mined around nearby Hutchison, Kansas for decades.  And past sinkholes have been definitely linked to the dissolution of underground salt, gypsum, or other sedimentary mineral deposits. [16]

The Wallace County sinkhole presented a little mystery because the area’s subsurface geology is not so well known.  Among Kansas counties, Wallace County is “short on oil and gas and its salt is too deep to mine economically.”  So less data is available on the subsurface geology of the area, but it is assumed to be no different than the areas all around and, so, is vulnerable to sinkhole formation. [17]

Meanwhile, Margaret Hoss was offended that her pasture turned into to tourist attraction, and the visitors ignored the family’s pleas to stay away.  Barricades didn’t work, and Hoss was afraid the traffic would damage her pasture’s grass, which was needed for their cattle.  Still, she made no reports about the trespassers to County Sheriff Townsend.  Hoss explained that, while she was angry about the trespassing, she still didn’t believe in “petty arrests.”  [18]

Grossmann: The “Land Shark,” The “Land Catfish” & The “Land Octopus”


31 October 2013

Decades ago, the film, Jaws, was credited with terrifying movie goers to the point that they avoided beaches for fear of being attacked by a real version of the film’s animatronic great white shark. [image] [1] Then, there was a sequel with promotional trailers warning:  “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” [image] But at least you were safe on dry land.  Right?

Saturday Night Live’s writers decided to take away that last refuge of safety by presenting a predator that could strike on land or sea.  In 1975, the first in a series of SNL sketches featured a hapless urban dweller who hears a knock on their front door.  When the caller is asked to identify themselves, a voice on the other side of door says “repair man” or “door-to-door salesman.”  Then, when the door is opened, in plunges the “Land Shark” (or a giant foam rubber version of the “Land Shark”), which completely consumes the victim. [2] [image] [video]

Well, the Land Shark was just a joke.  Wasn’t it?

It was.  But, like more than a few fictional, on-screen characters, the Land Shark seems to have an imitator.

Just when you thought it was safe to go near the water?

Catfish in France have learned to hunt pigeons. [3] [4] Fishermen on the France’s River Tarn were more than shocked to witness catfish “loitering in shallow water near sandbars populated by pigeons.”  When one of the birds wandered too near the water line, it was a “Land Shark” experience for the bird and a meal for the catfish. [video]

When Julien Cucherousset of Paul Sabatier University heard the story from the bewildered fisherman, he captured footage of the “event.”   The on-line video went viral. The first time I saw the video, my reaction was almost that of an academic naturalist.  “How fascinating,” I thought.

At least, I thought it was fascinating until I learned that these catfish were three to four feet long.  So, I am only about 2 feet longer that the largest of these “Land Catfish.”  My next thought?  Would I . . . ?  Yes, I assured myself.   I’d win — if caught in a shoreline struggle with an overly aggressive four-foot catfish.  Then, I reflected.  Suppose I was sick and weak that day?  I didn’t try to answer that question.  I just . . .  thought of something else.  [5]

At first, I was comforted by the fact that this particular species of catfish wasn’t native to France, but had been introduced to the Tarn River about 30 years ago.  I imagined some weird, predacious species of catfish from the depths of the Amazonian jungle had been imported and accidentally released into the river.  But, when the full story unfolded, it turned out that these were just plain old catfish.  And they had been intentionally released into the river. [6]

Over the last three decades, the waters of the Tarn became less populated with crayfish and other smaller fish.  So, the catfish began feeding on land prey — a behavior no member of its species is known to have engaged in before.  These fish hover under the water near the shore watching their prospective, terrestrial prey.  Then, when an opportune moment presents itself, they leap out of the water onto the dry land, grab their prey, and leap back into the water taking there land-dwelling victim with them.  Then, the “Land Catfish” enjoys a leisurely meal in its underwater home. [7]

Autopsies of the catfish in the area revealed that not all of the fish were eating pigeons.  However, those that were tended to abandon their old diet of crayfish and other small fish focusing more exclusively on land prey.  [8]

Somehow, I found the casual way in which these animals extended their hunting range disconcerting.   But more disturbing was the autopsy’s suggestion that some fish had developed a taste for land animals — ignoring their old fare of crayfish and other small fish to focus almost entirely on pigeons.  As a land-based mammal who enjoys strolling along the shores of natural bodies of water, I’m still not entirely comfortable with these developments.

One writer, attempting to minimize the strangeness of it all, noted that African crocodiles jump out of the water and grab zebras.   And whales beach themselves on the ice to nab penguins for dinner.  But these are hardly apt comparisons.  Crocks and alligators are air-breathing lizards.  They just hang-out in the water.  Whales are also air-breathing mammals who have adopted a fish-like lifestyle. [9]

Neither of these examples could compare to a plain old fish intentionally jumping out of the water to grab some terrestrial creature, drag it into the water, and eat it.  I’ve watched scenes like this in old horror movies.  I’ve always loved to stroll along the shore of almost any waterway, but is it safe?  Where I live, my favorite body of water is the Mississippi River.  After seeing this video, I checked.  The Mississippi is teaming with catfish – those same enterprising, opportunistic, and hungry sea-beasts that are scarfing down pigeons in France!

On calmer reflection, I realized that the Land Catfish is actually engaged in the mirror image of human sea diving.  Somehow, I’d always thought that land creatures dived into the water to feed on unsuspecting sea creatures.  Not the other way around.  And human beings had the distinction of being the only creature that could learn to dive into the water for food (and maybe a few pearls).  Now, the Land Catfish has turned the tables on us.

But the Land Catfish isn’t the only sea creature that feels free to promenade out onto the dry land to pick up a meal.

A few decades ago, I remember strolling along a Sarasota beach at midnight — my feet kicking through the white sand.  In those distant days, you could still find yourself quite alone on the beach at night.  Absolutely taken with the beauty of the Gulf, I remember thinking how nice it would be to just stretch out on the sand and sleep in the cool breeze off the water until sunrise.

All those years ago, I would still have been quite safe from human interference, but I would never have thought of the possibility of something coming up out of the sea.  I can imagine the psychological trauma I would have experienced if, in the middle of that peaceful night’s sleep, I had stirred awake and opened my eyes to see an eye looking back at me:  the “dominant eye” of a local octopus.  The creature wouldn’t have been interested in me. It would have just been “passing by.”  But, after an experience like that, I would have moved to the top of a mountain — as far away from the water’s edge as I could get.

Not long after I saw the “Land Catfish” video, a story broke about a “Land Octopus.”  The terrestrial excursions of the octopuses have stayed pretty much out of the public eye until recently when one of these strange creatures was caught in the act – on video. [video]  An octopus was seen grabbing lunch, not while roaming where it belongs – underwater — but, instead, crawling around on the beach casually grabbing a few snacks.  The witnesses got a video camera and the rest is internet history.  [10]

How long has this sort of thing been going on, I wondered?  Well, octopuses have been doing this since . . . forever.

The Land Octopus starring in the San Mateo County, California video was not engaged in any particularly unusual behavior.  Marine biologist James Wood explained that several species of octopuses make brief forays onto land for a meal. [11]  Most discomforting was his explanation of why the public is so ignorant of this particular octopus behavior.  Octopuses leave the water all the time.  They just do it when they won’t be seen.  Wood explained that most octopuses are nocturnal, sneaking out of the water at night to enjoy their meals unobserved. [12]  Well, with this factoid, my nocturnal seashore walks are over.

The octopus caught on video was probably engaged in the octopus version of grocery shopping.  Julian Finn, a senior curator of marine invertebrates at the Museum Victoria in Australia explained that octopuses frequently emerge and hunt in tidal pools when the tidal waters recede.  The octopus examines these “grocery shelves” either with its eyes, (octopuses have rather good vision), or feel for food with its outstretched arms (tentacles?). [13]

However, not so typically, the cephalopod shopper in this video is seen discarding an empty crab shell during its shopping spree — after eating the occupant.  Either this octopus was particularly hungry and couldn’t wait to get home, with the crab serving as a kind of fast food snack or, even with eight arms, carrying all those groceries got to be too taxing.  If the “groceries” get too heavy, octopuses often stop and eat their way to a lighter load. [14]

However, shopping isn’t the only thing that brings octopuses out of the water and onto dry land.  Finn explained that octopuses also “lurch” out of the water onto land to escape danger.  Wood recalled an incident in which he was chasing and photographing a common octopus “when it crawled out of the water, across eight feet of rocks and went back into the water” apparently hoping this maneuver would confuse the pursuing photographer. [15]

Mercifully, octopuses aren’t interested in eating people.  Hostile interactions between octopuses and people happen when the octopus perceives a person as a threat rather than as a potential meal.

Still, even if I’m not on the menu, I wouldn’t like to encounter an octopus as I was strolling or resting on dry land.  Imagine if I’d paused to catch my breath on that eight foot expanse of rocks when the Land Octopus jumped out of the water in its attempt to shake the pursuing James Wood.  After literally running into an octopus on dry land, you can bet that it would be a long time before I thought it was safe to go anywhere near the water.

Of interest:

Land Shark (Saturday Night Live)

SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality


Grossmann: The Bumblebee and Robo-Snake on Mars – The Facts


24 October 2013

There’s a plan to colonize Mars.  Applications are now being accepted from would-be volunteers.  From these, four colonists will be chosen for a one way trip to the red planet.  No, this isn’t a NASA Project.  This project belongs to a Dutch company, “Mars One.”  So, when are the colonists scheduled to leave?  About 20 years from now.  When you consider that the estimated cost will be 6 billion dollars, you wonder how “Mars One” is planning to finance the project?   With a reality TV show.  But there’s yet another twist to the financing.  The 6 billion dollars will be raised by selling sponsorship/advertising for a reality TV show televised from Mars and staring the four “lucky” colonists who “won” their one-way ticket to the red planet.

Who would want to go on a one-way trip to Mars — 20 years from now?  Surprisingly, a lot of people — about 100,000 applicants, to date, have paid the $38 dollar application fee – each hoping (1) to pass the fitness screening to be eligible to make the trip and (2) to win the final selection lottery and be one of the four “lucky” colonists.  I’d like to call this “a plan,” but I’m not holding my breath.  It would take something more before I’d take a Martian colonial adventure seriously. [1]

But, then, “something more” happened.   Bumblebees and Wheeko, a robotic snake, volunteered for a mission to Mars.  This was a game-changer.  I knew these were real contenders for a successful colonial mission.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Bumbles and Robo-snake were being seriously considered by NASA and the ESA, respectively, rather than “Mars One.”  It also didn’t hurt that both Bumbles and Robo-snake are uniquely fitted to be Martian colonists.

In fact, a study published in Gravitational and Space Biology has demonstrated that bumblebees have “the right stuff.” [image] These, rather rotund, wild bees forage for food in the same wild grass and brush in which they build their nests.  I’m sure that, at first, no one saw them as particularly obvious candidates for a trip to Mars.  But, then, NASA identified an atmospheric pressure of 52 kilopascals (kPa) as “the ideal” for extraterrestrial facilities.  That’s a rather low pressure compared to earth’s normal sea level pressure of 101 kPa.  The search was on for fit space travelers and Martian colonists.  And “Bumbles” made the cut, and then some. [2]

While the bumblebee’s cousin, the familiar hive-dwelling honeybee, not only stopped working, but completely lost the ability to fly at an atmospheric pressure of 66.5 kPa, the bumblebee not only thrived at the lower 52 kPa atmospheric pressure, but continued its work, pollinating plants and collecting honey, at its usual pace. When the pressure was dropped below 50 kPa, “Bumbles” continued to work, but at a slower pace.   Then, when the pressure was dropped to 30 kPa, the bumblebees lost their ability to fly but, with an amazing display of mettle, these bees kept on working — foraging, pollinating, and gathering honey, more or less, on foot – crawling from bloom to bloom.  I think this the kind of bee we need to conquer the Final Frontier. [3]

Robo-snake, on the other hand, has the obvious advantage of being a robot.  [image] So, those conditions necessary to biological organisms are of little importance to this automaton.  However, Robo-snake is an odd contender, because he is being considered . . . before he exists.

Although the ESA (European Space Agency) is, more or less, including Robo-snake as a crew member on an upcoming mission to Mars, this particular robotic crew member has not been developed yet.  It’s a little strange.  But, on second thought, is recruiting a nonexistent crew member to go on a real mission to Mars any stranger than Mars One recruiting real crew members to go on a nonexistent mission to Mars? [4]

No matter, robo-snake’s older brother is standing-in for his sibling in futuro during the evaluation process.  Big brother (named Wheeko) is a robotic snake that looks and moves surprisingly like a real snake.  It’s modus operandi is beyond a brief and simple description, but one video is worth a 1,000 words. [video]   Wheeko, is composed of ten round metal balls, on the balls are rows of what appear to be smaller balls that roll with motive power and make Wheeko move.  With a camera on its “head,” (which is the lead ball), it makes the familiar serpentine movement of its namesake as it travels on the ground.

Wheeko is the subject of a current feasibility study by researchers at the SINTEF Research Institute in Norway and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.  Until now, the primary purpose of the development of a robotic snake was as a tool to be used on search and rescue missions.  As one of the project members, Aksel Transeth, explained, real snakes “can climb rocks and slide through small holes.”  It is hoped that a robot with these skills could be used “to find people in a fallen buildings.”

If Wheeko passes all the tests, what will its little brother, the future Martian colonist, be like?  Actually, little brother will be different if for no other reason than he has a sidekick.  Or, more accurately, he will be a sidekick.  But, instead of playing sidekick to his fellow bumblebee colonists, Robo-snake will play sidekick to the more familiar Mars Rover.  These vehicles are designed for off-roading in the rough Martian terrain.  Yet, however carefully they are directed, they do have a tendency to get stuck.  Enter Robo-snake. [image]

Instead of a lone player on the Martian surface, Robo-snake would be a deployable snake robot or an actual arm attached to the Mars Rover.  The Rover vehicle could detach Robo-snake to investigate the nooks and crannies of the terrain while allowing the Rover to maintain a safe distance from areas in which the Rover might get stuck.  And if the Rover gets stuck, one proposed design would turn Robo-snake into something like the Rover’s tentacle arm.  Such an amazingly versatile arm would be able to both push and pull to extricate the Rover if caught in too tight a spot.

So, together, the bumblebees and the Robo-snake may be the first Martian colonists.  Of course, they won’t be traveling together.  NASA is interested in “Bumbles” and the ESA is interested in Robo-snake.   But even if they don’t share the same flight to the red planet, they’ll probably meet when they get there.  Right now, Mars isn’t that crowded. 

Grossmann: “Bye Bye Blackbird” – The Solution to the Bird Problem?


5 September 2013

Prolog:  North American bird populations have been in continuous decline for decades.  These population losses are shared by all species of birds — both “common” and “endangered.”  A National Audubon Society report, “Common Birds in Decline,” documents that there has been as much as an 80% decline in populations of many “secure” species.  In spite of endless speculation, the cause of these declines remains a mystery.  However,some declines are less mysterious than others. [1]

Let’s pick up this story in the middle.  Just minutes before New Years, on December 31, 2010, birds began to drop dead out of the sky in Beebee, Arkansas.  Hours after dark, hundreds of Red Winged Blackbirds suddenly flew out of trees and brush and into the air.  No sooner were they airborne, than they tumbled back down to the ground dead.  In the morning, thousands of dead birds were found everywhere.  A major clean-up operation was required.

No one knew the cause.  The poor night vision of this variety of blackbird makes nocturnal flight extremely rare.  Some had speculated that fireworks had frightened the birds from their roost, but the county vet was doubtful.  Some blamed the frequency of thunderstorms during the previous week, but the last thunderstorm had ended days earlier.  Others remembered the death of a flock of ducks that had fallen to the ground dead near Hot Springs in 2001.  Those deaths were attributed to a lighting strike or, possibly, hail.  But, again, there had been no storm during the last flight of Beebee’s blackbirds. [2]

During the following week, “Several hundred dead birds” were found near Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky.  The birds were “scattered around” several city blocks.  “No one could determine the cause of death,” but speculation was that “[i]t could be something in the weather.” [3]

As the news spread, one woman, living in Marshall County, Kentucky, came forward to report that she had found dozens of dead birds on her property throughout that same Christmas season. [4]

Then, on January 5, 2011, just days after the mass bird deaths in Arkansas, 500 birds were found dead on a Louisiana highway.  The location was only about 300 miles away from Beebee.  The dead birds were of three species: blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows.  Louisiana officials believed the birds fell to their deaths after “flying into a power line.”  However, the reason why 500 birds would engage in this amazingly precise flying maneuver was “still a mystery.”  [5]

Although no one immediately concluded that the weather was to blame, soon a thunderstorm was discussed as a possible cause.  Again, however, the last thunderstorm had ended days before these birds’ last flight.  With the timing of the thunderstorm so far off the mark, attention turned to a rare weather phenomenon that could suck birds into the air, hold them and, then, drop the birds, in mass, at a particular location. [6]  The 2001 deaths of the Hot Springs ducks made another appearance in media reports to illustrate weather-related bird deaths.

Pathologists all agreed that trauma was the cause of death — a broken breastbone.  In other words, the birds died from the impact as they hit the ground.  However, the reason why the birds fell out of the sky and hit the ground could not be determined.

Stress was placed on the toxicology report.  These blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows hadn’t been poisoned.  However, it’s not clear whether pathologists checked for an unusual and expensive poison like DRC-1339, which affects only a small group of bird species.  This poison metabolizes quickly in a bird’s system so that insects and animals that scavenge the dead bird would not be affected.  DRC-1339 is marketed under the commercial name that says it all: Starlicide.  [7]

After all those stories about the “mysterious” decline in North American bird populations, it turns out that at least one factor is about as mysterious as the decline in insect populations after a visit by the exterminator.

This story ends in Yankton Riverside Park in the City of Yankton, South Dakota, on the morning of January 18, 2011 — just 18 days after the first mass death in Beebee, Arkansas.  Residents were puzzled and alarmed to find hundreds of dead birds in the park.  The event received substantial publicity and a police investigation began. [8]

Like the reports of other bird die-offs over the past weeks, this latest mass death remained unexplained.  Accounts of the mysterious deaths were repeated by mystified naturalists.  Environmentalists were sure that some enjoyable aspect of modern life was responsible and, of course, should be stopped.  Those with an apocalyptic streak even worried that these mass bird deaths were a sign of the end of world.

Then, the United States Department of Agriculture contacted the Yankton Police.  The USDA representative explained that the Department of Agriculture had poisoned the birds at a location south of Yankton — adding, pleasantly, that they were surprised the birds made it as far north as Yankton before dying. [9]

This story begins with a Nebraska farmer.  We’ll call him Farmer Jones.  He complained to the USDA that starlings were defecating in his feed meal.  The USDA investigated and concluded that the birds were causing “agricultural damage.”  Also, feed meal contaminated with bird poop was “a threat to human health.”

This confronted the USDA with a difficult decision.  They had to find the most humane, economical, and least disruptive means of dealing with the problem.  On the one hand, they could provide Farmer Jones with a cover for his feed meal.  On the other hand, they could obtain a deadly poison and begin a program of mass bird extermination.  Weighing all the factors, it was apparent that mass bird extermination was the only possible solution.

Quickly consulting their staff experts, the USDA obtained large quantities of DRC-1339, a deadly poison called Starlicide, and began the implementation of their new program. Thousands of birds were allowed to feed on the poison and die.  But the USDA felt this should be the start of something really big.  They made it so.

With amazing efficiency, and certainly great expense, the USDA had fatally poisoned over 4 million birds by the time of the Yankton Park die-off.  This was no idle boast.  These numbers were, and are, documented on the USDA website.  Better yet, the USDA has a name for the program.  It’s called “Bye Bye Blackbird.” [10]

This program of systematic poisoning is costing taxpayers a lot of money and bird lovers a lot of grief.  Black birds, starlings, farmers, and feed meal have been living together since — about forever.  Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it have been cheaper and more merciful to buy Farmer Jones a cover for his feed meal?

Epilog:  The residents of Beebee, Arkansas didn’t hold a memorial on the first anniversary of the mass bird deaths of 2010.  They didn’t need to be reminded because it happened again.

On December 31, 2011, Beebee’s police dispatcher began to receive multiple calls reporting, that “blackbirds [were] falling again and that [people] found blackbirds on the streets where they live or at [their] churches,” A spokesperson for Animal Control reported that there were “birds falling down on the street and people dodging and missing them.”  A Police spokesperson later explained that this second die-off wasn’t as bad as the previous year “when birds covered the streets.”  At least this year, the clean-up would be easier because the dead birds were scattered over a smaller area.

Initial suspicion, again, fell on fireworks with news reports confirming that fireworks had caused a similar event the previous year.  Even an unnamed expert expressed the opinion that the many blackbirds flew into the air and crashed down to their deaths because they were scared by fireworks.  [11]

However, the fireworks explanation faded away as later news reports refocused on the weather.  Although there had been no thunderstorms at the time of this latest death flight, there had been thunderstorms days earlier.  And, of course, the reporters remembered those ducks that were struck by lightening in Hot Springs in 2001.