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What's The Difference Between Grasshoppers and Locusts?

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There is something swarming in New Mexico. The infestation is so thick that clouds of insects are showing up on the radar like, well, real clouds.

“It is a nuisance to people because they fly into people’s faces while walking, running, and biking," John R. Garlisch, extension agent at Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service, told ABC News. "They are hopping into people’s homes and garages, they splatter the windshield and car grill while driving, and they will eat people’s plants." 

So what are they? Well, news outlets are calling them grasshoppers, but if they're swarming, does that make them locusts? A New York Times article from a similar occurrence last year went so far as to say that grasshoppers become locusts simply by swarming.

National Weather Service

In a 2010 article on locusts that was published in the Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, Alexandre Vsevolo Latchininsky, Extension Entomologist for the State of Wyoming, explains that "all locusts are grasshoppers but not all grasshoppers are locusts." He defines locusts as "short-horned grasshoppers (Orthoptera: Acrididae), distinguished by their density-dependent behavioral, physiological, and phenotypic polymorphism."

The phenotype mutability refers to the fact that for some subspecies of locusts, the different stages of life are marked by different colors and even body shapes. However, it is the behavioral aspect—the mass grouping together—that is most notable. The act of swarming, or exhibiting a so-called "gregarious phase," is the most obvious characteristic that identifies a subspecies of grasshopper as a locust.

Latchininsky explains in his paper that "out of more than 12,000 described grasshopper species in the world, only about a dozen exhibit pronounced behavioral and/or morphological differences between phases of both nymphs and adults, and should be considered locusts." And in fact, the tendency to swarm together is a relatively recent phenomenon in grasshopper evolution.

However, what we have in New Mexico is an uncharacteristic swarming by members of the Acrididae family, which are the non-swarming members of the grasshopper designation. Latchininsky tells mental_floss that this has happened roughly a dozen times in evolutionary history. However, he cautions that, "these occasional gatherings do not mean that these grasshoppers are locusts! There are only a dozen or so true locust species in which the increase of density causes behavior changes followed by physiological, morphological and other phenotype changes." Based on extenuating factors—last year's monsoon season coupled with a dry winter—this current phenomenon seems to be a case of too many grasshoppers in too little space as opposed to a proclivity to swarm.

Still, Latchininsky speculates that it, "may be a first evolutionary step towards this species becoming a locust in a distant future."

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This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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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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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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