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Darwin's Beetle, Lost and Found

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Wikimedia Commons

Charles Darwin had kind of a thing for beetles, and would go to great lengths to collect and study them. In 1846, he wrote to a friend about one of the entomological adventures he had looking for ground beetles: 

Under a piece of bark I found two Carabi & caught one in each hand, when lo and behold I saw a sacred Panagæus crux major; I could not bear to give up either of my Carabi, & to lose Panagæus was out of the question, so that in despair I gently seized one of the carabi between my teeth, when to my unspeakable disgust & pain the little inconsiderate beast squirted his acid down my throat & I lost both Carabi & Panagæus! 

During his famous voyage on the Beagle in the 1830s, Darwin collected fossils and living animals for his research wherever he could, including plenty of beetles. Among them was a type of rove beetle—a member of Staphylinidae, the largest beetle family—that was unknown to science.  

Unfortunately, before Darwin—who apparently could not bear to lose a beetle—or any other biologist could formally describe the new beetle and name it, the specimen was misplaced somewhere in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. 

Skip ahead almost 200 years, to the present day. Stylianos Chatzimanolis, an entomologist at the University of Tennessee, has been working over the last few years to update the family tree of a sub-group of rove beetles. He’s spent many hours in his lab examining specimens borrowed from all over the world and working on manuscripts (while listening to David Sedaris audiobooks). One day, he noticed that one of the beetles had notched antennae, a trait that’s not common among rove beetles. Intrigued, he looked into it a little more and discovered that the strange beetle was on loan from the Natural History Museum, and was the lost beetle collected by Darwin in Argentina.

The beetle was recorded as specimen number 708 by Darwin in his notes, and then stored at the museum among unsorted Staphylinidae specimens, presumably because no one knew what it was or where it belonged. Eventually one of the curators noticed it while sorting these materials and, taking a best guess, moved it to storage with the genus Trigonopselaphus, to which it bore a resemblance. This happened to be the same genus that Chatzimanolis was researching, and when the museum sent over its Trigonopselaphus collections, specimen 708 made a second trip over the Atlantic, this time to be rediscovered instead of lost. 

After examining the beetle more closely, Chatzimanolis decided that it wasn’t a member of Trigonopselaphus, but a new genus. He dubbed the group Darwinilus in honor of Darwin, and named specimen 708’s species D. sedarisi as a nod to the writer who entertained him while he worked. He published his description of the beetle on Darwin’s 205th birthday, February 12, 2014. 

Despite searching in many major museum collections, Chatzimanolis has only been able to find one other specimen of Darwinilus sedarisi, which dates from 1935 or before. Chatzimanolis thinks the lack of specimens may be because the beetles spend most of their time hiding and feeding in the trash piles of ant colonies. Most of the area around the spots where the two beetles were found, though, has since been deforested and turned into farmland, so it's also possible the beetles disappeared for lack of a place to live. “One of course hopes that a newly described species is not already extinct,” says Chatzimanolis.

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Animals
25 Shelter Dogs Who Made It Big
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Focus Features

If you’ve been thinking of adding a four-legged friend to your brood and are deciding whether a shelter dog is right for you, consider this: Some of history’s most amazing pooches—from four-legged movie stars to heroic rescue dogs—were found in animal shelters. In honor of Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, here are 25 shelter dogs who made it big.

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technology
This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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iStock

Octopuses can do some pretty amazing things with their skin, like “see” light, resist the pull of their own sticky suction cups, and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. That last part now has the U.S. Army interested, as Co.Design reports. The military branch’s research office has funded the development a new type of morphing material that works like an octopus’s dynamic skin.

The skin of an octopus is covered in small, muscular bumps called papillae that allow them to change textures in a fraction of a second. Using this mechanism, octopuses can mimic coral, rocks, and even other animals. The new government-funded research—conducted by scientists at Cornell University—produced a device that works using a similar principle.

“Technologies that use stretchable materials are increasingly important, yet we are unable to control how they stretch with much more sophistication than inflating balloons,” the scientists write in their study, recently published in the journal Science. “Nature, however, demonstrates remarkable control of stretchable surfaces.”

The membrane of the stretchy, silicone material lays flat most of the time, but when it’s inflated with air, it can morph to form almost any 3D shape. So far, the technology has been used to imitate rocks and plants.

You can see the synthetic skin transform from a two-dimensional pad to 3D models of objects in the video below:

It’s easy to see how this feature could be used in military gear. A soldier’s suit made from material like this could theoretically provide custom camouflage for any environment in an instant. Like a lot of military technology, it could also be useful in civilian life down the road. Co.Design writer Jesus Diaz brings up examples like buttons that appear on a car's dashboard only when you need them, or a mixing bowl that rises from the surface of the kitchen counter while you're cooking.

Even if we can mimic the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, though, other impressive superpowers, like controlling thousands of powerful suction cups or squeezing through spaces the size of a cherry tomato, are still the sole domain of the octopus. For now.

[h/t Co.Design]

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