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  • NWF Staff
  • Apr 01, 1996
Zoology Discovery of the Decade

Researchers discover new habitats all the time, but none has excited zoologists in a very long time so much as the mouth hairs of Norwegian lobsters. (No, this is not an April Fools' joke.) That's because the hairs are the home of a creature so unique that scientists have now created a whole new phylum for it. (Phylum is the classification just under kingdom, dividing creatures into groups such as sponges, mollusks and animals with vertebrae.) The research, promptly dubbed "the zoological highlight of the decade," was published in December by biologists Peter Funch and Reinhardt Mobjerg Kristensen of the University of Copenhagen.

The critter is named Symbion pandora, and the new phylum is Cycliophora, Greek for "carrying a small wheel." The tiny, bottle-shaped animal — no bigger than the dot on this "i" — attaches to a hair using an adhesive appendage. At the other end of its body, a ring-shaped mouth (the wheel) uses tiny, undulating hairs to pull into its gut water and food from the lobster's repasts. In a particularly bizarre event, the creature periodically sloughs off its upper half—losing its mouth and gut. The trick is that the lost organs continually form and reform. Also strange is the creature's reproduction, which cycles between asexual and sexual stages and involves dwarf, nonfeeding versions of the creature.

In a commentary in the journal Nature, University of Cambridge scientist Simon Conway Morris suggested readers make sure to have zoology textbooks and microscopes on hand at mealtime to aid discovery of the world's other unstudied creatures. "Who knows what might be lurking under the lettuce?" he asked.

No Poisons, No Pests

In the early 1990s, the cockroaches dwelling in one of the public schools in Allegan, Michigan, became so plentiful that they were traveling home in students' lunchboxes and pant cuffs. Something had to be done. But what? Poisons simply weren't killing the critters anymore; they had become pesticide resistant. Not only that, the state passed a law requiring schools to seek alternatives to chemical pesticides. Allegan nearly halted the school's lunch program. But then Praxis, an Allegan company that sells biological pest controls, stepped in to, as Praxis co-owner Sam DeFazio puts it, "create an artificial ecosystem indoors." And according to DeFazio, Allegan's school system became the first in the country to eliminate pesticides in favor of biological controls.

Now the cockroaches in all of Allegan's schools are dined on by tiny wasp parasitoids and attacked by nematodes, placed in such locations as under sinks and behind refrigerators. "When you start to talk about bringing in wasps, people start to panic," says school superintendent Doug McCall. "But these wasps are the size of a pinhead. And we've found that when we consistently apply and manage the biological controls, they work." The little predators may go hungry soon; the cockroaches have all but disappeared. And other methods have also replaced poisons for control of yellow jackets, ants, termites and mice. The cost? At least 20 percent (and as much as 80 percent) less than traditional pest-control methods.

Land Ho!

When winter stoneflies emerge from a stream at the end of their nymph stage, they find themselves standing on the surface of the water with en winter stoneflies emerge from a stream at the end of their nymph one major goal: getting to shore to live out their adult lives. So the bugs set sail. As Pennsylvania State University biologist James Marden puts it, the insects "simply hold their stubby little wings up in the air to let the wind blow them toward land."

With that simple observation, researchers are challenging the traditional theory that, evolutionarily speaking, insects first made use of wings in order to glide unsupported through the air: Perhaps the first wings didn't serve as wings at all, but as sails. If so, then a number of other notions about the development of flight may also be flawed. "Because we throw out the paradigm that equates wings with flight, we are now allowed to explore all kinds of new possibilities for the evolution of flight in insects," says Marden.

Dressing Down Pays Off

Finally, a reason for loosening shirt collars and baring legs that your boss should find mighty persuasive. An analysis by the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute (commissioned by the nonprofit group Friends of the Earth) yields proof that in warm weather, less constricting clothes reduce the need for air conditioning, saving businesses money and improving air quality. The study's main finding (in refreshingly plain English for a scientific document): "Wearing more clothes makes us hotter."

The study found that a company cooling a 100,000 square-foot building, for example, spends $1,860 more a year on air conditioning to keep heavily outfitted employees comfortable at 72 degrees F than it would if the thermostat were turned up to 76.4 degrees F. That translates in this example to a savings of $5.37 per person, per year. If the building were still in the planning stages, the company could save $52,805 in capital costs by purchasing a less powerful air-conditioning system.

Says Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder, "Men dress inappropriately with suits and ties that insulate the body, keeping in heat at the very time of year you don't want to. It's the counterpart of going out into the winter in a T-shirt and shorts." What smart business person would do that? So let's hear it for adopting the Hawaiian standard of casual, comfortable clothing in the workplace. All in favor say aye. Aye!

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