Lab: Tiny insect is faster than Usain Bolt
THE Saharan silver ant has joined the list of world record-breaking animals - running the equivalent of more than 20 times faster than Usain Bolt.
The insect can sprint at speeds of 855millimetres per second - 108 times its body length, researchers have found. To put that into perspective, when Bolt set the world record for the 100metres in 2009, he ran at just 5.35 times his body height per second.
The researchers at the University of Ulm in Germany said the ant needs its impressive speed because it must be fast enough to survive its travels across the blisteringly hot desert.
At midday in Douz, Tunisia, while other animals shelter from the hot sun, the ant takes advantage of the lack of predators to scavenge the corpses of less fortunate creatures.
Surface temperatures can exceed 60C but the ant is only able to tolerate a body temperature of up to 53C, so it must minimise the total time spent in the hot, dry desert environment.
Shady spots to rest and recoup are few and far between, so it needs to return to its underground nest regularly to cool down between foraging expeditions.
'We had to look for digging ants or follow a foraging ant back home,' said Dr Sarah Pfeffer. 'After the ants have found the food - they love mealworms - they shuttle back and forth in the channel and we mounted our camera to film them from the top.'
Although it was previously known that the ants were capable of reaching incredibly high speeds, it was not known exactly how fast they were or how they achieved their staggering pace. The team found that while their legs are almost 20 per cent shorter than another Tunisian ant of the same genus, the silver ant's footwork is more impressive, moving its legs at speeds of up to 1.3metres per second and taking 47 strides per second.
At high speeds, the ants take all six of their feet off the sand and touch down for as little as 7milliseconds.
'These features may be related to the sand dune habitat,' said Prof Harald Wolf. 'They could prevent the animal's feet from sinking too deeply into soft sand.'■ 18% - The number of all species of vertebrates that have been traded on wildlife markets
50,000 reasons why vapes may be better than smoking
REPLACING regular cigarettes with vapes could help more than 50,000 smokers in England quit each year, a study finds.
An analysis of data in the Smoking Toolkit Study, which dates back to 2006, found that use of e-cigarettes in attempts to kick the habit began to increase from 2011 onwards - as did the success rate of quitting.
After making statistical adjustments for factors such as seasonality, underlying trends, population level policies, spending on tobacco, mass media and the affordability of tobacco, researchers estimated that in 2017 about 50,700 to 69,930 smokers had stopped who would otherwise have carried on smoking. Dr Emma Beard, lead author and senior research associate at University College London, which carried out the research, said: 'This study builds on population surveys and clinical trials that find e-cigarettes can help smokers to stop.
'England seems to have found a sensible balance between regulation and promotion of e-cigarettes.
'Marketing is tightly controlled so we are seeing very little use of e-cigarettes by never-smokers of any age while millions of smokers are using them to try to stop smoking or to cut down the amount they smoke.'
However, as e-cigarettes are not risk free, the researchers strongly discourage non-smokers from using them.
The Smoking Toolkit Study is a series of monthly household surveys of people aged 16 and older in England that dates back 13 years. The study involved around 1,200 individuals each quarter who had smoked within the past 12 months.■ 30 Years - The time frame in which humans will find evidence of alien life, as predicted by Nobel prize-winning astronomer Prof Didier Queloz
Variety of plants on farms helps them produce more crops
FARMS in areas with high biodiversity are more productive, a study by Italian researchers has found. After analysing around 1,500 agricultural areas across the world, from corn fields in the American plains to coffee plantations in India, the scientists found that farms with a wide variety of plants were home to more beneficial insects, required fewer pesticides, and produced more crops.
Live life in the fast lane... slower walking is sign of quicker ageing
HOW fast people in their 40s walk is a sign of how quickly they are ageing. A study in New Zealand has found that slower walkers tend to have lower total brain volume, less surface area and more damage to the brain's white matter. As a measure of how well their bodies are functioning, the slower walkers were also judged to have older looking faces, according to the long-term study of nearly 1,000 people aged 45.
Arctic species hit hard by extreme snow
EXTREME snowfall meant only a handful of plants and animals were able to reproduce in part of north-east Greenland last year, a study found.
The snow in Zackenberg covered the ground well into summer in what could be a 'peep into the future', as the Arctic experiences an increase in extreme weather events alongside long-term warming.
Such poor reproduction across all levels of the ecosystem has never been observed before. Niels Martin Schmidt, lead author of the Danish study, said one non-breeding year is not 'that bad'. But the worry was 'that 2018 may offer a peep into the future, where increased climatic variability may push Arctic species to, and potentially beyond, their limits'.
He said: 'Climate change is more than "just" warming, and ecosystems may be hard-hit by rare but extreme events.' Continued research would aid understanding of the 'havoc brought by the changing climate', he added.
Why have trees evolved such a variety of leaf shapes?
LEAVES do a lot more than just gather sunlight for photosynthesis. They transport nutrients, take in CO2 and oxygen, deter animals from eating them, and release water to cool the plant, all while resisting wind and rain. That's a lot of different overlapping problems to solve at once, and every plant has a different set of priorities, according to the demands of its environment. But it's still remarkable how much the leaves of the flowering plants and trees vary. Pelargoniums, which are popular houseplants, all belong to the same genus but the different species have a huge variety of leaf shapes, from wispy fronds to broad heart shapes. How this happens is a topic of research, but it seems flowering plants have important structural genes that can cause dramatic changes to the leaf shape, with just minor genetic mutations.
Why do so many Americans drive automatic cars?
AUTOMATIC cars in the US are generally cheaper, more powerful, and are used to drive long distances on relatively straight roads. Europe is more densely populated with old, bendy roads that require more anticipation, so manual gears allow the driver to be more reactive. American driving can involve a lot of stopping and starting, so manual gear changes become a nuisance.
■ Based on stories featured in BBC Science Focus magazine. Head to sciencefocus.com/metro for the latest science news and a special subscription offer for Metro readers
Also in BBC Science Focus this month
■ The telescope that will map the Milky Way
■ How to save wild bees
■ Could the Amazon rainforest become a desert?
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