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bat

This is Wagner’s mustached bat (Pteronotus personatus), a somewhat ridiculously named bat which is a master of echolocation.  The little flying insect hunter is tiny:  bats have a body length of 6 to 6.7 centimetres (2.4 to 2.6 in).  They are strictly nocturnal insectivores.  They fly over rivers at night feeding on moths and mosquitoes.  Wagner’s mustached bat is notable as one of only a handful of Doppler-shift compensating bats in the new world: the little animals.  To quote Michael Smotherman’s article in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America , Wagner’s mustached bats “adjust the frequency of their [Constant Frequency] component to compensate for flight-speed induced Doppler shifts in the frequency of the returning echoes.” This is no mean feat for an animal without any onboard computers or slide rules.

Pteronotus personatus04el

Wagner’s mustached bat ranges from southern Mexico, down through Central America to the Pacific coast of Ecuador. It is found in a broad swatch of South America in a band through Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and across central Brazil to the Atlantic.  Not only does the bat intuitively understand Doppler shift effects, it also exhibits an interesting coloration feature.  The species has two color phases: some bats are sable colored with grey underparts; others are reddish-orange with cinnamon colored underparts.   Ferrebeekeeper needs to talk about polymorphism (maybe later this week) and this little mustached creature is a good start on explaining the concept.

the-rlv-td-is-relatively-tiny-its-21-foot-length-makes-it-much-much-smaller-than-nasas-retired-fleet-of-122-foot-long-100-ton-space-shuttles

Once people have done something for the first time, it becomes much easier to do it again and again in novel ways.  I mention this, because, just this week, the great nation of India tested their own scaled-down and scaled-back prototype version of a space shuttle.  ISRO (The India Space Research Organization) fired a 7m-scale model lander about 70km (43 miles) into the atmosphere from a spaceport in took off from Andhra Pradesh.  The craft was launched atop a HS9 solid rocket booster. It is unclear whether the organization has recovered the prototype or not.

indian-space-research-organization-scientists-think-the-shuttle-could-cut-costs-by-as-much-as-10-times--bringing-the-total-down-to-2000-per-kilogram

The Indian spaceplane program is proceeding on a tiny budget which would make NASA (or even SpaceX) wince. The little prototype cost the equivalent of $14 million dollars. However the Indian government has big plans: within 15 years they hope to build a full scale Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD) capable of repeatedly going into orbit and then returning through Earth’s atmosphere to land safely.  Since NASA has been working on projects very different from spaceplanes, I am glad to see that somebody else is still working on the concept.  I will be extremely curious to watch the progress of this Indian offspring of the original shuttle program which was such a triumphant and tragic centerpiece of space exploration during my childhood.

it-lifted-off-and-cruised-to-35-miles-above-the-earth-then-detached-from-the-rocket-and-reached-its-highest-altitude-of-about-40-miles

A strangely horrifying illustration of the supermassive black hole located in the middle of the very dense miniature galaxy M60-UCD1

A strangely horrifying illustration of the supermassive black hole located in the middle of the very dense miniature galaxy M60-UCD1

Fifty million light years away from Earth is the dwarf galaxy M60-UCD1. This tiny globular galaxy is 300 light years across–whereas our own beloved spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, is 120,000 light years in diameter! Yet within that 300 million light year sphere, M60-UCD1 is a crazy place. Despite its (comparatively) tiny area, the dwarf galaxy is teaming with stars: astronomers estimate it contains 140 million star systems. If Earth were located in M60-UCDI, the night sky would positively glow with millions of visible tars (as opposed to the measly 4000 which are visible to the naked eye in our present location). This is all quite odd, yet only recently did astronomers discover the strangest thing about M60-UCDI. At the center of the tiny galaxy is a supermassive black hole which weighs more than twenty million suns. To quote the European Space Agency’s website, “The supermassive black hole at the centre of M60-UCD1 makes up a huge 15 percent of the galaxy’s total mass, and weighs five times that of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.”

Messier 60 with M60-UCDI (Composite image from NASA's Hubble & Chandra space telescopes)

Messier 60 with M60-UCDI (Composite image from NASA’s Hubble & Chandra space telescopes)

Astronomers speculate that something went terribly wrong to form this oddball of a galaxy. A prime culprit is Messier 60, a large scary galaxy which lurks near the little dwarf galaxy. The black hole at the center of Messier 60 is 4.5 billion times the size of our Sun! Perhaps once upon a time M60-UCDI was a normal galaxy with billions of stars…till it wandered too close to Messier 60. The larger galaxy tore off the majority of the stars which made up M60-UCDI and added them to itself (while Messier 60’s black hole swallowed up its fair share of star systems). It is a horrifying image of galactic bullying! Why can’t we all get along?

Different fossil plants and animals from the lacustrine deposits of the McAbee Flora of the Eocene (British Columbia, Canada)

Different fossil plants and animals from the lacustrine deposits of the McAbee Flora of the Eocene (British Columbia, Canada)

Today we return to the long-vanished summer world of the Eocene (the third epoch of the Cenezoic era). During most of the Eocene, there was no polar ice on Earth: a balmy temperate summer held sway from Antarctica to Svalbard. British Colombia was covered by a tropical rainforest where palm trees and cycads contended with warm weather conifers (and with the ancestors of elms, cherries, maples, and alders). Within this warm diverse forest, which thrived between 55 and 50 million years ago, lived numerous strange magnificent birds and insects. Shoals of tropical fish thronged in the acidic foaming waters (which were practically carbonated—since the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of the Eocene were probably double that of the present).   The mammals of this lovely bygone forest were equally splendid–strange proto-carnivores not closely related to today’s mammalian predators,  weird lemur analogs, and strange ur-rodents. This week the discovery of two new mammal species was announced.  These remarkable fossil finds provide us with an even better picture of the time and place.

a reconstruction of the early Eocene  in northern British Columbia, a tapir-like creature from the genus heptodon with a while tiny proto-hedgehog in the foreground. (Julius T. Csotonyi)

a reconstruction of the early Eocene in northern British Columbia: a tapir-like creature (genus Heptodon) with a tiny proto-hedgehog in the foreground. (Julius T. Csotonyi)

One of the two creatures discovered was a tapir-like perissodactyl from the genus Heptodon. The newly discover tapir was probably about the size of a large terrier. I really like tapirs (and their close relatives) but these remains are not a huge surprise–since many perissodactyls thrived in North America during the Eocene. The other fossil which paleontologists found is a surprise—an adorable surprise! Within a stone within a coal seam was a tiny jaw the size of a fingernail. Such a fossil would have been all but impossible to study in the past, but the paleontological team led by David Greenwood, sent the little fossil to be scanned by a CT scanner and then imaged with a 3D scanner. The tiny jaw was from a diminutive hedgehog relative since named Silvacola acares.  The little hedgehog grew to a maximum adult size of about 6 cm (2.3 inches) long or approximately thumb-sized. Since it probably lacked spines, this miniature hedgehog was a bit different than the modern hedgehog, but it was definitely a relative.

As discussed in previous posts, I like to imagine the balmy Eocene, when so many mammals which are now the mainstay of our familiar Holocene/Anthropocene world got their first start. It makes it even better to imagine that the thickets were filled with endearing hedgehogs the size of bumble bees.

Etruscan Shrew (Suncus etruscus)

Etruscan Shrew (Suncus etruscus)

Alright, this is a little bit of a stretch for Etruscan week, but the Etruscan shrew (Suncus etruscus) is fascinating! It is the smallest mammal by mass weighing an average of only 1.8 grams (0.063 oz) (although there are certain bats with smaller skulls). The tiny creature does indeed live in what was once Etruria…although it admittedly also lives around the Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Asia Minor, across Southeast Asia, and down into Malaysia.  There are also invasive colonies in Nigeria (though goodness knows how they got there).

Etruscan Shrew Range

Etruscan Shrew Range

The shrew has a fierce metabolism: its little heart beats 1511 times per minute (25 beats a second). It must eat up to twice its own body weight every day to stoke its internal fires. I like food–but I would wear down fast eating a thousand hamburgers a day. Once I watched a documentary about the top ten super predators—and shrews weighed in at number one. They only eat live food which they catch—and they catch between 20 and 30 prey animals a day. This becomes all the more impressive when one considers that they eat insects (which have wings and are sometimes bigger than the shrew) as well as spiders and myriapods which are armed with terrible stings and venoms. Additionally the shrew dines on immature amphibians, baby rodents, worms, and larvae.

Etruscan Shrew with Snail

Etruscan Shrew with Snail

Etruscan shrews are largely nocturnal and crepuscular. Because of their poor eyesight, they have acute hearing, highly sensitive whiskers, and an amazing sense of smell: indeed, their long tin noses are mobile and can move about quite sinuously. In winter their fur grows long and they sometimes undergo periods of temporary hibernation when their body temperature drops down to 12 °C (54 °F). They are only social during mating season when a pair will live together through the 27-28 day gestation and until the cubs are independent (which is when they are three to four weeks of age). Litters range from two to six cubs. Because they are so small (and so widespread), Etruscan shrews are preyed on by all manner of snakes, cats, lizards, birds, and other predators. Their particular bane seems to be owls. Naturally, none of these predators are as dangerous to the overall species as humankind is. Etruscan shrews now have a non-contiguous range because of agriculture and habitat loss (although they seem to enjoy human ruins). They live to two years of age in captivity—although owls usually prevent death from old age in the wild.

The Etruscan Shrew is cute in its own way...

The Etruscan Shrew is cute in its own way…

If we were not so jaded, we would recognize how remarkable and intense the Etruscan shrew is. Just writing about it, I feel like I have been describing an alien lifeform—a clever cunning creature which fits in a teaspoon. Except when it hibernates, it must endlessly devour. We will return to the art and society of ancient Etruria tomorrow, but right now spare a moment to reflect on the extraordinary nature of our strange mammal kin!

Artist's conception of the Kicksat deploying a fleet of tiny microchip satellites (Ben Bishop)

Artist’s conception of the Kicksat deploying a fleet of tiny microchip satellites (Ben Bishop)

Have you ever wanted to have a fleet of numerous extremely tiny micro-satellites in outer space doing your bidding? Well, if so, there is bad news for you: an experimental satellite meant to test out a new paradigm for launching multiple tiny space vehicles ended in failure earlier this month. Microsatellites have become common in low earth-orbit in recent years, but the Kicksat was a special sort of tiny satellite. Within the little 10cm by 10cm by 30cm “mothership” were 104 truly tiny space vehicles which had a flat square shape measuring only 3.5 cm square by 3 mm thick.  Each weighed about 5 grams.  The little satellites (whimsically named “sprites”) were meant to launch from the central satellite in spiral waves. Each sprite included a microprocessor, a solar cell, and a radio system—some of the tiny craft had more elaborate microelectromechanical sensors.

 

The anatomy of a "sprite" satellite

The anatomy of a “sprite” satellite

Aerospace engineers had hoped that the tiny crafts would provide useful data on the behavior of small craft in space since the behavior of materials and systems in space change based on scale (particularly solar sails—which become more efficient and viable). Unfortunately it seems that solar radiation caused the system clock to reset—thus delaying the secondary sprite launch until after the main satellite burned up in reentry. Still, the telemetry of the mothership functioned properly (and also provided a valuable lesson about the need for radiation shielding). The project may evolve into a second iteration based on lessons from the failure of the first attempt and it has provided us with an amazing computer simulation of launch (below).

Lesser Shrew And Common Shrew (Archibald Thorburn, 1903, watercolor on paper)

Lesser Shrew And Common Shrew (Archibald Thorburn, 1903, watercolor on paper)

One of my favorite aspects of art is the foreground—the tiny and insignificant items pictured there frequently highlight the larger themes of the work (while wedding the larger figures to a microcosm of tiny dramas).   This is true unless the painting is all about the foreground, as is frequently the case with the works of Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935) a Scottish painter who specialized in watercolor paintings of wildlife—particularly birds and small creatures.  Here is a wonderful watercolor painting of two small shrews encountering a potentially dangerous larger shrew within a tiny landscape.  The pebbles and grass blades become forests and boulders for the tiny insectivores as they size up this strange encounter.  Of course there is a foreground in this tiny painting as well:  a common wildflower grows into the composition from the right corner.  The tiny salmon petals of the little flower lend color and drama to the scene (while reminding the viewer to always look for beauty, even in the world underfoot).

CD Catfish (Tim Vogelaar and Joel Smythe for "Nashville Catfish out of Water")

CD Catfish (Tim Vogelaar and Joel Smythe for “Nashville Catfish out of Water”)

I suspect that ever since the color of the year was announced to be radiant orchid, my readers have only been asking themselves one question: “Are there any purple catfish?”  There are many imaginary purple catfish in the arts and in fantasy (and in a world of fluorescent lights, all sorts of things can take on a lavender hint), but there is also a real purple catfish!  Native to the clear flowing streams of Guyana, here is Centromochlus reticulatus, also known as the purple oil catfish or the driftwood cat.

Centromochlus reticulatus (image from msjinkzd)

Centromochlus reticulatus (image from msjinkzd)

Centromochlus reticulatus is a shy and retiring catfish which likes to hide by day in driftwood and come out at night to feed on whatever tiny invertebrates or other foodstuffs they can find.  The adult fish are extremely tiny and measure only 1 inch (2.7 cm) in length.  Like many little catfish, the fish may be shy and nocturnal but they are also social and friendly with each other.  Indeed aquarists report that they can sometimes be seen coming out to feed in little pseudo-schools where they frisk and dance in happiness at being together. Their most distinctive traits are the handsome honeycomb spots on their backs, their long whiskers, and cute all-black eyes (which are covered in adipose tissue and “lack orbital rims”).   Because they are so furtive, their wild range is somewhat unclear: although they are most common in Guyana’s Rupunun River, they reputedly also live in various nearby South American waterways (including the northeastern tributaries of the mighty Amazon).

Young Centromochlus reticulatus

Young Centromochlus reticulatus

The little fish are not exactly a Pantone dream color: younger fish are a demure purple/pink (although in older specimens the purple may fade somewhat).  And yet I find the tiny lavender catfish to be very endearing.

segue2

News of the cosmos frequently involves inconceivably large numbers or gigantic objects beyond human imagination.  This is particularly true of galaxies–gigantic systems of stars, gas clouds, black holes, and exotic unknown dark matter.  Even the tiniest dwarf galaxies have tens of millions of stars and our lovely home galaxy, the Milky Way, has approximately 300 billion star systems! However the universe is a mysterious place and it frequently refutes conventional wisdom and prior expectations. This week astronomers from Hawaii’s Keck Observatory announced that they had discovered a ridiculously little galaxy with only a thousand stars. The adorable miniature galaxy, which has been dubbed Segue 2 is not a star cluster because it is surrounded by its own halo of dark matter, but it is many orders of magnitude smaller than any known galaxy.  Astronomers are trying to determine whether it is a scrap of a larger galaxy which was ripped apart (!) or whether it is a baby galaxy which never fully coalesced.  Astronomers hope that by learning more about Segue 2 and other hypothesized tiny galaxies they can find out more about the creation of the universe and the formation of elements.

"NO!" --image editors

“NO!” –image editors

Clione or “sea angels” swimming in a Tokyo aquarium (Photo by REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama)

In terms of taxonomical diversity the gastropods are second most diverse class of animals on Earth (outnumbered only by the teeming class Insecta of the other great invertebrate phylum Arthropoda).  This means that there are some deeply strange arthropods out there. While we traditionally think of gastropods as snails and slugs there are odd subcategories of these creatures, like the subject of today’s post, sea angels (of the clade Gymnosomata).

A “Sea Angel” (Clione limacina)

Sea angels consist of six different families of pelagic marine opisthobranch gastropod molluscs.  Gastropods are named for their famous foot (the name means “stomach-foot”–a misnomer since gastropods all have true stomachs elsewhere) however the name is even more inappropriate for sea angels.  In these free-smimming predators, the gastropod foot, so familiar to us as seen on snails, has evolved into a pair of delicate wings for swimming through the water. Sea angels are very small: the largest species only reach 5 cm (2 inches) in length and most varieties are much more miniscule.  They prey on other tiny creatures swimming among the plankton—particularly other smaller slower species of gelatinous mollusks.

A hunting sea angel (photo by Alexander Semenov)

Adult sea angels lack any sort of shell—which they discard when they metamorphose into adulthood.  Their feeding apparatuses can be strangely complicated—pseudoarms and tentacles which recall their cousins the cephalopods. Sea angels are numerous in the oceans but some scientists are concerned that the acidification of the world’s oceans will cause substantial problems for the tiny translucent gastropods.

Sea Angel (Platybrachium antarcticum)

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