This Tiny Sponge is Probably Set to Change The World

By Anupum Pant

Background

Things absorbing water from the air is nothing new. Hygroscopic substances – or substances which have ability to attract and hold water molecules from the surrounding environment – have always been around. Coffee powder for instance is one great example – leave the dry coffee powder in the open and it will turn into a mushy matter within hours. Thanks to the moisture present in the air that it absorbs.

Hygroscopy in Nature

In the nature too, hygroscopy – the ability to extract water from thin air – has some peculiar functions. One fantastic example is the seed of the needle-and-Thread grass. This seed, with the help of a hygroscopic awn attached to it, can twist and untwist the screw like structure by releasing and absorbing moisture from the air. This way, it is able to dig its way into the ground. But that’s just one of the many examples of how hygroscopy is all around us. Here’s another one…

Thorny devil – an Australian lizard – lives in the arid scrubland and desert that covers most of central Australia. It has a hard time finding water in this dry place. So, blessed by the evolutionary forces of nature, the lizard has developed tiny hygroscopic channels between the spines on its back. These channels, working in tandem with a capillary action mechanism, are able to draw water from the air. Then their precise design makes the water move into the mouth of the lizard. Fascinating!

Other Ways

Although not exactly using hygroscopy, the Namib desert beetle, also does something similar – drawing water from thin air. Unlike the hygroscopic grooves of the thorny devil’s back, the desert dwelling beetle has developed some patterns on its hard wings which help it in drawing water from the air. These patterns include an array of  hydrophobic and hydrophilic materials which are able to trap water from the foggy morning air and are able to channel it to the beetle’s mouth.

The Nanotube Sponge Mat

This particular beetle’s hard wings with magical patterns on it, intrigued a couple of researchers. They took cue from this natural material and were able to create an artificial mat which could absorb water from the air.

nanotube sponge

Although we do have commercial Atmospheric Water Generators (AWG) which can harvest water from the air and supply drinking water, the sad thing is that these things run on electricity. This new mat that was fabricated recently, using an array of carbon nano tubes sandwiched between hydrophilic and hydrophobic layers, doesn’t need any electricity to extract water.

This mat they’ve fabricated is smaller than your thumbnail, but it still works, and is able to extract about 1/4th of it’s weigh in water within a few hours. The researchers are working on it to make it more efficient. [more information] [Original Paper]

A couple of years back a US based startup, NBD Nano, was inclined on developing a water bottle based on the same Namib desert beetle principle. The much touted water bottle, they said, would be able to fill itself! I’m not sure where their project is headed today, but an auto-filling water bottle sure would be a product just too cool to not own by every kid at school!

Needless to say, it would probably make a huge difference by lowering greatly the number of people who don’t find clean drinking water every day – Just for the record, about 1/7th of the world population didn’t have access to clean water today.

Australian Bird Makes Camera Shutter Sounds

By Anupum Pant

Until now I hadn’t even heard about, probably the most well-known bird of Australia, the Lyrebird. These birds are there on the 10 cents coins in Australia. Their feathers are beautiful, but what these birds can do is truly astonishing – The R2D2s of the real world.

The Lyrebird has been seen mimicking the sounds of at least twenty other birds. That’s not all. Some of these captive Lyrebirds have been seen mimicking sounds of human technology like a camera shutter, car alarm and a chainsaw too – as seen in the video below.

In 1969, as observed by an ornithologist in New England National Park, these birds were able to reproduce sounds of a flute, singing two famous songs of the 30s “The Keel Row” and “Mosquito’s Dance.”  They had learnt it from a farmer who used to play these tunes on a flute.

A word of caution

Although the video would lead you to believe that wild birds have started mimicking sounds of human technology, it isn’t totally true. The birds that has been shown in the video, in reality, are captive birds from Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary and from the Adelaide Zoo. While Attenborough makes it seem like the bird is mimicking “sounds of the forest”. these clips are not typically what these wild birds do in the wild.

Maybe it happens in the wild too, but it’s highly unlikely because the human technology sounds are usually lost amidst the forest sounds. Moreover, never in the past has there been a recording of this bird mimicking human technology sounds in the wild. Maybe they do, but science requires evidence.

The Sweet Tale of the Mysterious Tree Lobster

By Anupum Pant

I do realize how big our world is and the sheer number of species that live in it. Also the fact that about 86% of the species are still unknown has me in awe all the time.

Yet, after having read about so many kinds of animals that live on our planet, after having documented them on this blog, I always feel that I’ve known and written it all. The very moment I start losing hope that I would never find an interesting animal ever again, something incredible comes across. Always!

Today, that happened again when I was reading an NPR blog. This time, there’s more than the species itself. The place where it lives is pretty awesome too. The most amazing part – This six-legged giant lives only there. That means, nowhere else on Earth will you find it! First, let’s see where it lives…

This is where it lives:

balls pyramid

I know, it looks like a CG mountain done for a fantasy movie. Trust me, it’s real. It’s called the Ball’s Pyramid (named after a European named Ball who first saw it in 1788) and was formed 7 million years ago due to a volcanic eruption. It is an awkwardly tall (1,844 feet) and an extremely narrow rock sitting in the centre of the sea. To the East of Australia, the red place marker in the following picture shows where the rock is located.

 balls pyramid location

 What lives there? And how was it found?

There is an island – Lord Howe island – close to the rock. In the island lived huge “tree lobsters” (actually they were huge stick insects with a hard exoskeleton – Dryococelus australis). In the year 1918, a ship crashed on the island and brought with it some rats. The rats loved these tree lobsters and finished them off within 2 years. After 1920, these tree lobsters were thought to be extinct.

tree lobster

Of course there were stories of these insects living on a rock near the island. But no human wanted to climb the narrow rock to hunt insects at night.

Only in the year 2001 when 2 researchers David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile decided to climb up the rock to find out if these stories were real, they found something incredible. Poop of a large insect. When the came back at night to investigate, the shiny black huge tree lobsters were found! These insects had probably never been extinct.

For more than 80 years, 24 of them had been living on this rock, in a bush and no one knew how they got there. Probably they clinged on to birds or something. Also, according to the researchers, these creatures have never been seen anywhere else.

Where are they now

I’m not sure about where they are now. According to the 2012 NPR article which I read, a pair of these creatures – Adam and Eve – were brought into Australia. Eggs got laid and little Tree lobsters came into the world. Thankfully, the species was saved from going extinct. But it isn’t known if they’ll be sent back to their home island because the great-great-great grandsons of those rats must still be there waiting to finish these insects off again.

This is how the first ones hatched in the zoo…

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