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YouTube // The New York Times
YouTube // The New York Times

How Stick Bugs Move, A Motion-Capture Study

YouTube // The New York Times
YouTube // The New York Times

Using the same technique that brought Gollum to life in The Lord of the Rings, researchers in Germany have studied the movement of stick bugs. They placed motion-capture dots on each articulated point (each of its six limbs, at the various joints), then filmed the bugs in motion, and extracted the location of those points to make a 3D computer model.

In addition to the motion capture, they had the bugs walk on force-sensing plates, so that each step would register a force value. This allows for a good sense of where the bug's center of gravity is, and what each leg is doing. All of this is written up in a paper and briefly shown in the video below.

So why would anybody do this? To make better six-legged robots, of course! Now, this begs the question: What's the difference between a stick bug and a six-legged robot? You'll see both in this video, and they are eerily similar. Enjoy:

You can read more about the research from the New York Times as you prepare to welcome our new six-legged robot overlords.

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Weird
Billions of Cockroaches Are Bred in China to Create a ‘Healing Potion’
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Insectophobes would probably agree that any place that breeds billions of cockroaches a year is akin to hell on Earth.

That place actually exists—in the Sichuan Province city of Xichang—but China's government says it's all for a good cause. The indoor farm is tasked with breeding 6 billion creepy-crawlies a year to meet the country's demand for a special "healing potion" whose main ingredient is ground-up roaches.

While there are other cockroach breeding facilities in China that serve the same purpose, the one in Xichang is the world's largest, with a building "the size of two sports fields," according to the South China Morning Post.

The facility is reportedly dark, humid, and fully sealed, with cockroaches given the freedom to roam and reproduce as they please. If, for any odd reason, someone should want to visit the facility, they'd have to swap out their day clothes for a sanitized suit to avoid bringing pollutants or pathogens into the environment, according to Guangming Daily, a government newspaper.

The newspaper article contains a strangely poetic description of the cockroach farm:

"There were very few human beings in the facility. Hold your breath and (you) only hear a rustling sound. Whenever flashlights swept, the cockroaches fled. Wherever the beam landed, there was a sound like wind blowing through leaves. It was just like standing in the depths of a bamboo forest in late autumn."

Less poetic, though, is the description of how the "miracle" potion is made. Once the bugs reach maturity, they are fed into machines and ground up into a cockroach paste. The potion claims to work wonders for stomach pain and gastric ailments, and according to its packaging, it has a "slightly sweet" taste and a "slightly fishy smell."

The provincial government claims that the potion has healed more than 40 million patients, and that the Xichang farm is selling its product to more than 4000 hospitals throughout China. While this may seem slightly off-putting, cockroaches have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.

Some studies seem to support the potential nutritional benefit of cockroaches. The BBC reported on the discovery that cockroaches produce their own antibiotics, prompting scientists to question whether they could be used in drugs to help eliminate bacterial infections such as E. coli and MRSA.

In 2016, scientists in Bangalore, India, discovered that the guts of one particular species of cockroach contain milk protein crystals that appear to be nutritious, TIME reports. They said the milk crystal could potentially be used as a protein supplement for human consumption, as it packs more than three times the energy of dairy milk.

"I could see them in protein drinks," Subramanian Ramaswamy, a biochemist who led the study, told The Washington Post.

However, as research has been limited, it's unlikely that Americans will start to see cockroach smoothies at their local juice bar anytime soon.

[h/t South China Morning Post]

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Animals
How to Identify Insects Just By Looking at Their Mouths
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Most of us learned how to tell arachnids and insects apart in elementary school, but classifying insects into their different orders based on looks alone is a little trickier. If you want to look at insects like an entomologist does, though, there’s one body part in particular you should focus on. According to a TED-Ed lesson by Anika Hazra, identifying the type of mouth an insect has can tell you a lot about what group it belongs to, what it eats, and how it evolved.

There are five main types of mouthparts insects can have, the most common of which is the chewing mouthpart. These mouths are characterized by large, serrated mandibles made for grinding up plants and prey. Believed to be the most primitive type of insect mouth still around today, you can see the chewing mouthpart on insects like ants and grasshoppers.

Other insect mouthparts include the pierce-sucking type, which is used by bedbugs and mosquitos to suck blood; the siphoning mouthpart, the curly, straw-like mouths that butterflies have; the sponging mouthpart, which helps flies sop up fluids; and the chewing-lapping mouthpart, which enables bees to build their hives as well as eat.

It’s important for scientists studying bugs to be able to recognize the diverse mouths of insects. It’s also a useful skill if you’re just a casual bug enthusiast. For illustrations of all the different mouthparts, check out the video from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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