SNIPPETS

Tweet from LCROSS lunar mission...

In one of its less-reported actions recently, Nasa’s LCROSS lunar mission gave Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the extra-planetary exposure it has always deserved. A Twitter feed from the satellite sent crashing onto the moon’s surface channelled the voice of an improbably created sperm whale that discovers itself hurtling towards a different outer-space collision in Adams's much-loved story.

Published 30 years ago, the classic novel features two missiles, aimed at Zaphod Beeblebrox’s spaceship the Heart of Gold, turned into a whale and a bowl of petunias by the vessel’s Improbability Drive (at an Improbability Factor of 8,767,128 against). The whale spends the last few minutes of its life pondering its existence – “Ahhh! Woooh! What's happening? Who am I? Why am I here? What's my purpose in life? What do I mean by who am I?" – before it crashes into the surface of the planet Magrathea.

As Nasa’s LCROSS spacecraft travelled towards the moon at more than 9,000 kilometres per hour, it tweeted in the whale’s words: “And what’s this thing coming toward me very fast? So big and flat and round ... it needs a big wide sounding name like ‘Ow’, ‘Ownge’, ‘Round’, ‘Ground’! ... That’s it! Ground! Ha! I wonder if it’ll be friends with me?”
Then it crashed into the moon, unfortunately failing to produce the 10km plume of dust and rock which could have been scanned for evidence of frozen water. Nasa made no mention of Adams’ bowl of petunias, which thought only “Oh no, not again” as it tumbled towards Magrathea.

The Guardian

Trailing a killer  whale...

Surveillance cameras are everywhere these days, capturing just about everything: the good, the bad, the unmentionable. One has even soared above the Southern Ocean, attached to the back of black-browed albatrosses. It has captured a rare sight: albatrosses following a killer whale, probably to obtain food.

The camera weighs less than three ounces and includes depth and temperature sensors. It was installed on four albatrosses at Bird Island in the southern Atlantic. Kentaro Q Sakamoto of Hokkaido University in Japan, Philip N Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey and colleagues pored through thousands of images. While most were of the featureless open ocean, they report in PLoS ONE that one bird encountered a killer whale. The bird appeared to have descended to the surface, perhaps to eat scraps left behind by the whale. The photograph suggested albatrosses may sometimes forage in the open ocean the way other seabirds do closer to shore -- by following other predators for clues or leftovers.

Spider prefers green leaves to meat

During field studies in Mexico two years ago, Christopher J Meehan, then a student at Villanova University, spent time watching a jumping spider on an acacia plant. The plant was swarming with ants, as ants and acacias constitute a well-known example of mutualism, the insects provide protection for the plant and in return the acacia produces nutritious leaf tips for the ants to eat. Meehan figured that the spider was hunting dinner. Instead, to his surprise, the spider, Bagheera kiplingi, darted around the ants and plucked off a one of the leaf tips, called a Beltian body.

Meehan, who is now at the University of Arizona, had discovered the first example of a largely vegetarian spider. He and Eric J Olson of Brandeis University, who observed the same behaviour among B. kiplingi in Costa Rica, and colleagues have published a paper on the finding in Current Biology. Some spiders occasionally eat pollen or nectar, but only as a supplement to their typical diet of insects. Through observations and isotopic analyses, the researchers found that B. kiplingi eats more Beltian bodies than ants, especially in Mexico, where about 90 per cent of the diet consisted of plant tissue.
The spiders actively hunt their vegetable prey.

Henry Fountain
NYT News Service

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