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February 2013 Archives

Massage Lessons from Kinky Spider Sex

Soon it will be that time of the year again; time for the male golden orb-weaver spider to get frisky. However, for this gent, mating is a dangerous proposition. The female he wants to woo is ten times his size, not to mention just as likely to make a meal out of him as mate with him.

Luckily, the male orb-weaver is a fairly suave guy and knows a smooth technique to putting that lovely lady in the right mood. Before and between bouts of copulation, he climbs atop the massive female's back and spreads silk to and fro in a process known as mate binding. The kinky rubdown works wonders, and -- believe it or not -- can teach us something about ourselves.

Okay, okay, I know what you're thinking. I don't spin silk, I don't have eight legs, and I don't eat my partner during or after intercourse. What's this got to do with me?

All of that is true. But like an orb-weaver spider, you do have a back, and you probably have experienced the awesome sensation of having it massaged.

In 2011, researchers examined orb-weavers' mate-binding technique and discovered that it was less the silk spinning and more the back rubbing that put the females in the mood. A massaging touch works wonders apparently.

The same is true for humans. Back rubs, and most other forms of massage, feel freakin' amazing. But why is this precisely?

Surprisingly, there hasn't been a lot of research conducted which examines the mechanism for massage's euphoric, relaxing effects. (Why risk ruining something so bliss-inducing, I suppose?) Scientists have, however, put forth a variety of suppositions.

In 1965, Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall theorized that massage reduces feelings of pain because pressure placed on muscles (via rubbing, for example) creates a barrier that interferes with the transmission of pain signals to the brain.

shutterstock_92299765.jpgMore recently, attention has been paid to the notion that massage influences the recipient's body chemistry. For example, it's been posited that muscle manipulations may stimulate a release of endorphins -- neurotransmitters that promote well being and induce analgesia.

Last year, researchers at UC - San Diego examined the affect of a fifteen-minute back massage on hormone levels in the body. The participants who received a back rub were found to have significantly higher levels of oxytocin compared with control subjects who merely rested quietly. The hormone is known to evoke feelings of contentment and alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety.  Additionally, the researchers found that levels of corticotropin, a hormone associated with biological stress, were reduced. Contrary to the earlier mentioned endorphin theory, they also discovered that the experimental group had lower levels of beta-endorphins.

Regardless of the why or how, a good back rub is always an effective antidote for everyday ailments, and it's a fabulous aphrodisiac for spiders and humans alike.

(Image: Massage via Shutterstock)

February 2013 Archives

I used to think that insects and spiders caught up in a tree's syrupy, seeping resin millions of years ago must have been absolutely inept at survival. How, with reflexes that regularly trump flyswatter-wielding humans, could they not avoid such a slow, sticky fate? But now I realize. They were distracted!

In October of last year, paleontologists discovered a piece of fossilized tree resin -- amber -- with a peculiar scene buried inside its golden depths: a spider attacking a parasitic wasp. 100 million years ago, trapped in a gluey web, the wasp lay helpless before the spider. As the arachnid moved in to strike a deadly blow, it completely missed the resin oozing down from above. But the spider's misfortune is our delight. Thanks to nature, the epic struggle -- pitting a pesky parasite against its vengeful host -- became immortalized, gifting us a brief glimpse into ancient times.

608px-2007_01_3000_muchowka_sciaridae.jpgAmber has also afforded us other prehistoric pieces of eye candy. In 2007, scientists found the earliest solid evidence of chemical warfare. A beetle-like insect was in the process of excreting chemical repellants to ward off a large, predatory cockroach when the beetle became engulfed in tree resin. Its cockroach combatant appears to have lucked out, only losing an antenna, instead of its life. Between predation and death by goopy tree juice, it simply was not that beetle's day.

Animal warfare certainly isn't all that's captured in amber. Just last August, two previously unknown species of mites, each 230 million-years-old, were found encased in amber globules high in the Dolomite Alps of northeastern Italy. The findings represented the oldest insects ever discovered in amber.

The coolest amber discovery, however, came a year earlier. Paleontologists recovered a piece of amber with dinosaur feathers inside! The millimeter-sized feathers likely belonged to a member of the theropods, a group of mostly carnivorous dinosaurs which included the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Spider_in_amber_(1).jpgTruly, amber is nature's finest camera, capturing still images of life from an unfathomably distant past. Hardened in anaerobic lake sediments, amber's chemical compounds become inexorably linked to such a degree that even flame won't break them. 

Thanks to amber, we can see hundreds of millions of years into history, a feat that a Polaroid almost certainly couldn't accomplish.

(Images: 1. Sciaridae in amber by Mirella Liszka via Wikimedia Commons  2. Spider in amber by Elisabeth via Wikimedia) Commons)

February 2013 Archives

The bubbles around me clear and as I regain my visibility my first thought is how wide is the mouth coming for me. Five feet? Six Feet?  Will my whole body fit in there?  As the whale shark closes the distance between us mouth first, I'm focused entirely on the size of the beast... Just feet shy of its intercept course, it casually slips below me into the ocean depths, emerging behind me unconcerned.  Thankfully, I'm no Jonah and this is not my whale (or whale shark as the case may be).

A run-in with a whale shark like the one described above would probably scare the flippers off of most amateur fish fans, but to marine biologist Dr. Craig McClain, it's simply an occupational hazard, and one that he's not at all frightened of.

"I know that the esophagus of a whale shark measures only inches across," he writes. "The massive beast could not choke me down even if it preferred man meat to plankton."

shutterstock_88641523.jpgWhale sharks are the largest fish in the sea. Adults measure thirty-two feet from nose to tail fin and weigh about 20,000 pounds. Despite their behemoth size and prodigious maws, which tally in at 4.9 feet wide, these gentle giants don't concern themselves with larger prey. Instead, they primarily feed on millions and millions of tiny aquatic organisms -- plankton -- opening their mouths gaping wide to take in as many of the miniscule critters as possible, about nine pounds of them per hour during productive feeding sessions.

According to marine biologist Dr. Philip Motta of the University of South Florida, whale sharks aren't in the least bit interested in consuming humans.

"Having swam in front of many of them as they were filter feeding, I noticed that they closed their mouth as they approached me head on. One would have to actively try and get into their mouth while feeding, which I do not recommend," he told Real Clear Science.

But still, curiosity begs the question: what would happen should you -- against all odds  -- find yourself in mouth of a whale shark? 

First and foremost, you'd notice that it's a tight squeeze. The whale shark's pharynx isn't nearly as capacious as you might think. According to Motta, an average-sized man would barely fit.

If you can overcome any claustrophobia and the whole "being eaten" thing, you'd be afforded an inside look at some spectacular anatomy! Towards the mouth opening, you'd see about 3,000 teeth, each about three millimeters in length and curved slightly inward, arrayed in about 350 rows. The sheer number of teeth sounds daunting and dangerous, but unless you find yourself accidentally munched on the way in, you probably don't have to worry about them.

If oriented towards the front of the shark, look to your left and right; you'll notice ten black sieve-like filter pads; five on either side. These function to separate the food from all the water that's taken in.

If you have the courage and flexibility to look behind you, you'll see the esophageal opening, which leads to the stomach. Don't worry, as mentioned earlier, you won't be able to fit down the tube.

Chances are, however, that your sight-seeing session will be extremely brief.

"My educated estimate is that the shark would immediately spit out the person," Motta said.

In 2010, Motta led a study that focused on whale sharks' feeding anatomy and behavior. One thing he and his team found was that the animals really don't like eating anything that's foreign to their diet.

"We actually threw seawater soaked rice in front of whale sharks to time the flow of water into the mouth as they filter fed on the surface. They would spit out the one handful of rice as soon as it entered the mouth. We also threw Sargasso seaweed in front of them and they spit that out also."

Whale sharks have a built-in "coughing" mechanism that's triggered when objects that clearly aren't food brush past their filter pads. This causes the whale shark to open its mouth and attempt to expel its contents.

So, to summarize, a whale shark almost certainly won't take you in its mouth, and it definitely couldn't eat you.

Sorry to spoil a timeless "fish tale."

(Image: Whale Shark via Shutterstock)

February 2013 Archives

Apollo 12 Was Struck by Lightning During Launch

NASA's Apollo program was an electrifying accomplishment in America's history, an effort that truly catapulted our country into a shimmering, new era. There was a time, however, where the Apollo program was literally -- not just figuratively -- electrifying.

On November 14th, 1969, four months after the captivating success of Apollo 11, America was set to return to the moon with Apollo 12. Though murky clouds that occasionally poured spats of light rain concealed the sun's cheery light, the spirits of the eager onlookers who came to Cape Canaveral that day to witness a repeat of history weren't dampened in the least. While the atmosphere in the skies was downcast, the ambiance on the ground was enthusiastic.

Firmly fastened to their seats within the command module "Yankee Clipper," Astronauts Charles "Pete" Conrad, Alan Bean, and Richard Gordon were excited, too. Following a renowned NASA countdown, 10... 9... 8... 7... 6... 5... 4... 3... 2... 1..., they blasted off from the launchpad at 11:22 A.M. EST.

However, 36.5 seconds into the flight, about a mile and a half up, the crew experienced a flash of white light and a jolt. Though the astronauts didn't fully realize it yet, their craft had been struck by lightning.

"The alarm system [came] on. More lights than I had ever seen ever in the simulator," lunar module pilot Alan Bean recounted.

Sixteen seconds later, at an altitude of about three and a half miles, a second bolt of lightning rattled the ship. Amidst a clamor of flashing lights and alarm sounds, commander Charles Conrad radioed down to mission control in Houston.

"Okay, we just lost the platform gang. I don't know what happened here. We had everything in the world drop out."

Things were not looking good. The power in the command module had completely failed, overloaded by the two lightning strikes. Battery backups had come online, but would only last for a couple hours. To make matters worse, all of the vessel's systems had crashed. Down in Houston, mission control was receiving nonsensical telemetry. Something had to be done fast or the mission would have to be aborted.

Luckily, swift thinking came from 24-year-old environmental control engineer, John Aaron. Remembering that there was an obscure, almost never used switch in the command module that would put the systems on an auxiliary setting, he recommended to flight director Gerry Griffin, "Switch SCE to AUX."

A quizzical look on his face, Griffin's initial response was, "What's that?" But after a quick explanation from Aaron, he relayed the recommendation to capsule communicator Gerry Carr. Carr dutifully delivered the command to the astronauts, even though he didn't understand what he was telling them to do. "Apollo 12, Houston, try SCE to Auxiliary, over."

Lightning-bolt-during-the-launch-of-the-Apollo-12-lunar-landing-mission-580x435.jpg Up in the command module, now over ten miles up, Bean flipped the switch. Power instantly came back online and the computer systems started rebooting. The mission was saved. Though his heart was still anxiously racing, Conrad managed a joke.  

"I think we need to do a little more all-weather testing."

Further weather testing wouldn't be necessary, as the event prompted NASA to impose launch restrictions that effectively eliminated the risk of a lightning strike ever happening again.

Today, the most likely explanation for Apollo 12's shocking launch is that the clouds through which the spacecraft flew contained significant amounts of electrical charge. When the rocket penetrated those clouds, it acted as an electrical conductor, thus enlarging the size of the cloud's electrical field. Once the electrical field grew too large, it broke down, triggering a discharge akin to natural lightning. Supporting evidence for this theory comes from the fact that each bolt of lightning traveled down through the rocket's ionized exhaust plume all the way to the landing platform.

Sources: Universe Today, Vintage Space, Aerospace Web, NASA

(Image: Apollo 12 Lightning bolt via NASA)

February 2013 Archives

Is Testosterone Deadly?

In terms of life expectancy, guys definitely get the short end of the stick. According to the United Nations, men outlive women in only six of the world's 198 countries. On average, women live longer by about 4.4 years.

But the longevity gap isn't solely restricted to humans. Female members of the animal kingdom also commonly live longer than their male counterparts. For example, female chimps live about 14 years longer, female orcas about 30 years longer, and female sea lions 12 years longer.

Such a universal disparity in longevity likely suggests that a fundamental difference between the sexes is to blame. Mutations in mitochondria -- the cell's powerhouse's -- have recently been implicated. Men also may simply be more "disposable" (in a biological sense, of course). But the likeliest culprit is the very hormone that defines masculinity: testosterone.

Primarily secreted in sex organs, testosterone is the principal male sex hormone and is essential to male functioning and well-being. Each day, men produce about twenty times more of it than women do. But while testosterone defines manhood, it may also get men killed.

Commonly thought to promote both aggression and risky behavior, testosterone is often implicated as the driver behind the glaring male-female mortality gap among twenty-somethings, an age demographic where men are two-and-a-half times more likely to die than women. Because of young men's proclivity to undertake risky behaviors in their twenties -- activities like binge drinking, fighting, and general acts of stupidity (apparently meant to showcase virility) -- this time is often labeled the "Testosterone Storm."

shutterstock_79019656.jpgTestosterone-fueled risk-taking may persist even later in life. In 1999, a sweeping analysis of the link between testosterone and men's health was published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Researchers interviewed and examined 4,393 men, and discerned good and bad news for guys' favorite hormone.

Men with testosterone levels slightly above average were less likely to have high blood pressure, less likely to experience a heart attack, and less likely to be obese. However, men with higher testosterone levels were more likely to report one or more injuries, more likely to consume five or more alcoholic drinks in a day, more likely to have had a sexually transmitted infection, and more likely to smoke.

"Analysis revealed that having a high level of testosterone, compared to a low level, increased the odds of health risk behavior," the authors reported.

Strong Libido, Weak Immune System?

Testosterone seems to be a double-edged sword. While it appears to enhance mating success, it also may reduce the strength of the immune system.

"When testosterone is lacking, the demand for amino acids to support cell proliferation and muscle-building is decreased, and it's thought that the body then shifts the use of these basic building blocks towards cellular defense and stress resistance," gerontologist Holly Brown-Borg told NewScientist.

Excessive testosterone appears to lead to adverse health consequences and reduced lifespan, but does this mean that cutting the hormone almost completely out of the equation bodes an opposite, positive outcome? A study published last year, which followed Korean eunuchs living between the mid-16th and mid-19th centuries, found that they lived 14 to 19 years longer than their non-castrated counterparts.

Worldwide, testosterone levels appear to be falling, and many bemoan the end of masculinity. There is, however, a silver lining to this reduction in macho-ness: men appear to be narrowing the gender gap with women.

Testosterone is the sword that men live by and die by. If the blade dulls, men may very well live longer.

(Image: Macho Man via Shutterstock)

February 2013 Archives

Gelada Baboons Are Sly Adulterers

Swinging from branch to branch, sifting through the dense, lush foliage of the Amazonian rainforest, a young, subordinate male capuchin monkey stumbles upon a veritable gold mine. It's a cache of figs, all looking tantalizingly sweet and succulent. He picks one and takes a big bite. Delicious.

Other members of the male's troop are nearby, and would undoubtedly want to be notified of the lavish finding. Knowing this, the young male sits back and lets loose a string of loud calls.

But he doesn't emit the softer squeals that would intimate that food is nearby. Instead, he produces a cacophony of barks, hiccups, and coughs, informing the others that a predator is in the vicinity. "Stay away! Danger!" he yells.

Except there is no predator nearby, and no danger, whatsoever. There are only the cherished figs. Instead of apprising the troop of the food's whereabouts, so that they may share in the tasty, nutritious bounty, the subordinate capuchin is deceiving them, so that he can selfishly scoff the figs all by himself!

Deception is a hallmark of the animal kingdom. In the game of life, subterfuge is often synonymous with survival. Most of this trickery occurs between species -- think of all the animals that adopt camouflage to fool predators. However, very little deceit actually occurs within species, where, for the most part, honesty prevails. The capuchin example is a noted deviation, albeit an infrequent one. Human interactions, where dishonesty is quite commonplace, tender a wider selection of examples

But now, researchers have discerned another example of within-species deception, this one among the gelada baboons of the Ethiopian Highlands.

Reporting in the journal Nature Communications, an international team of researchers describes a scandalous subject: how primate adulterers conceal their infidelity.

640px-Gelada_group.jpgCompetition for mating rights is stiff and brutal among gelada baboons. Males of this primate species achieve reproductive success by battling to become the dominant leader of a reproductive unit, which is composed of between one and a dozen females. This means that subordinate males are pretty much out-of-luck. Unless, of course, they can find a female willing to engage in a little lovemaking on the side.

Spending over 2600 hours watching nineteen different baboon reproductive groups, the research team found that such extra-pair copulations are rare, making up only 9% of all copulations. The other 91% were between the dominant male and the females in his unit.

You can probably guess why infidelity is so uncommon. When caught, the act often elicits violent punishment against the cheating pair, courtesy of the dominant male.

Potentially out of the desire to avoid this reprisal, cheating pairs were witnessed to employ two deceptive tactics to conceal their infidelity. First, the baboons were found to significantly suppress their copulation vocalizations. In less scientific terms, they "kept the volume down" while having sex.

Second, the research team found that extra-pair copulations were far more common when the dominant male was greater than twenty meters away. Thus, it seems that the cheaters took into account the visual perspective of the dominant male and decided to mate when his "back was turned," so to speak.

The research team's soap opera-esque findings beg some intriguing questions. Are the baboons' behaviors indicative of higher order cognitive skills? Are they merely a result of more simplistic associative learning? Will the gelada baboons get their own reality television show?

Source: Aliza le Roux, Noah Snyder-Mackler, Eila K. Roberts, Jacinta C. Beehner & Thore J. Bergman (2013) Evidence for tactical concealment in a wild primate. Nature Communications 4:1462 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms2468

(Image: Baboon Unit by Dave Watts via Wikimedia Commons)

February 2013 Archives

By most accounts, it all started with a harmless joke...

In 1962, at a little boarding school in the tiny village of Katasha, in what is now Tanzania, a small group of children started doing what kids often do: they began laughing.

The laughter was jovial at first, so much in fact that other students not privy to the original humor joined in as well. Some kids laughed so hard they cried. It was fun. It was innocent.

But then it wasn't.

It's very difficult to breathe when laughing. That's why you can only laugh for about twenty seconds. However, some of the kids had been laughing almost constantly for ten minutes! They began experiencing pain in their throats, and some started fainting. Soon screams rent the air, creating a cacophony with the unceasing laughter.

shutterstock_105020156.jpgThe laughter continued off and on throughout the rest of the day, slowly spreading like a contagion amongst the students. Laughing children even spread the condition to their parents when they returned home. Two physicians, A.M. Rankin and P.J. Philip, who were called in to examine the situation, described the malady as follows:

"The onset is sudden, with attacks of laughing and crying lasting for a few minutes to a few hours, followed by a respite and then a recurrence. The attack is accompanied by restlessness and on occasions violence when restraint is attempted. The patient may say that things are moving around in the head and that she fears that someone is running after her."

Strangely, the physicians didn't find any abnormal physical signs among the afflicted, apart from slightly dilated pupils.

Six weeks after the original outbreak, the boarding school was forced to shut down. Ninety-five of the 159 pupils had been "infected." In the twelve months that followed, the laughter spread to two other villages and fourteen schools, affecting approximately 1,000 people. Locals called the epidemic "Enwara Yokusheka" -- "the illness of laughing" -- or "Akajanja," which simply means "madness."

In their later examinations, Rankin and Philip managed to rule out a host of physical factors, such as poisoning or viruses. To date, the best explanation remains of the psychological sort, specifically mass hysteria, which is the spontaneous manifestation of hysterical physical symptoms by a group of people. 

"Now we call it Mass Psychogenic Illness," Purdue University's Christian Hempelmann told the Chicago Tribune. "It's psychogenic, meaning it is all in the minds of the people who showed the symptoms. It's not caused by an element in the environment, like food poisoning or a toxin. There is an underlying shared stress factor in the population... It's an easy way for them to express that something is wrong."

Mass hysteria begins with a few people experiencing symptoms of severe stress, such as fits, headaches, or nausea. When these manifest, they become rapidly magnified throughout the rest of the stressed population, driven by our innate tendencies to imitate and follow others with whom we closely sympathize.

After about 18 months, Tanzania's laughter epidemic subsided completely. There were no fatalities. Residents of Katasha and the surrounding villages still laughed of course, but their merriment was now normal; it didn't persist to pain nor spread beyond normal bounds.

(Image: Pal Teravagimov / Shutterstock.com)

February 2013 Archives

Seeing Earth from Space: How True Awe Changes You

One day in the 1970's, philosopher and space writer Frank White was flying cross-country. Watching majestic mountains, bright cityscapes, and snaking rivers stream past, he was struck with an idea:

"I was looking out the window, and... the thought came to me: anyone living in a space settlement or living on the moon would always have an overview. They would see things that we know, but we don't experience, which is that the Earth is one system; that we're a part of that system; and that there's a certain unity and coherence to it all."
White called this the "Overview Effect."

Of course, White had no evidence to back his speculation, so he decided to get in touch with the only people who could actually relate: space-faring astronauts. What they told White was very much in line with his theory. Seeing the Earth from space as a mere globe -- one of trillions in the cosmos -- against an endless ebony expanse bestrewn with twinkling stars leaves a lasting impression. It changes you.

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

"When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing," Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart told White. "That makes a change. You look down there and you can't imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don't even see them. There you are -- hundreds of people in the Mideast killing each other over some imaginary line that you're not even aware of, and that you can't see."

When viewing the Earth from space for the first time, NASA astronaut Nicole Stott reported feeling a similar sense of interconnectedness, along with an uplifting sense of wonder. "'Awe' I think is one of those words that you have a better understanding of once you see it," she said in the recently released online short documentary Overview. "Using the word 'awesome' was totally appropriate when describing what the planet looks like."

Stott was right on the mark with that explanation. The word "awesome" is tossed around to describe a myriad of everyday occurrences and objects -- a skillful sports play, a stylish automobile, or a tasty sandwich, for example -- but none of those things truly arouse genuine awe. Genuine awe leaves you in a state of sheer reverence, floored by fear or fascination, and often a transcendental mixture of both.

Experiencing the "Overview Effect" and being privy to true awe appears to indeed be transformational. Psychologists Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota recently studied feelings of awe in a laboratory setting. They found that these moments made subjects feel like they had more time available, and that time itself was slowing down. This made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer to help others.

54427main_MM_image_feature_102_jw4.jpgAccording to neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, "The brain itself is capable of taking in the Overview Experience and converting such an overwhelming concept into our behaviors and thoughts. Individuals who have had the Overview experience feel a breaking down of boundaries and a sense of the interconnectedness and preciousness of the Earth and all those who live on it."

After witnessing the Earth from space, NASA astronaut Ron Garan began to describe the planet as a "fragile oasis." He insists that if you came across a vibrant oasis in an inhospitable desert, you wouldn't trash it. You'd take care of it! In a vast universe that -- to the best of our knowledge -- is mostly a desolate place, unfriendly toward life as we know it, the Earth is truly a vibrant oasis.

When you see Earth from space, as "an oasis against the backdrop of Infinity," it becomes abundantly clear how amazingly precious our "pale blue dot," and all the life that dwells upon it, truly is.

(Image: Earthrise at Christmas via NASA)

February 2013 Archives

A big, hairy spider skitters across the floor of your room; its eight, long, rangy legs moving almost robotically. It stops. Horrified, you picture its fangs clicking together, and its many eyes jerkily twitching to and fro. Suddenly, the spider scuttles under your bed. Though you wait five minutes for it to reappear, it does not. Will you be able to sleep tonight, knowing that a monster lurks below?

Spiders give us the willies for a host of reasons. Their arced fangs, orb-like eyes, and segmented bodies all feed our trepidation, but the primary reason for our seemingly primordial arachnophobia likely stems from how they move. The way spiders motion their angular, jointed legs irks us like no other, psychologists say.

So why do spiders move in this unnatural, mechanical fashion? Well, it's because they fundamentally move differently than we do. Arachnid locomotion actually makes use of the same force that powers a variety of mechanical instruments: hydraulics.

Hydraulics is the process whereby power is generated, controlled, and transmitted through the use of pressurized liquids. A basic way to understand it is to picture two liquid-filled cylinders, each topped with a piston and connected by a pipe. If you apply pressure to one piston by pushing it down, the force is transferred through the liquid to the other piston, and this piston rises with the liquid. Dump trucks, skid loaders, and pumps are all man-made machines that operate on hydraulics.

While spiders have muscles to flex their spindly limbs inward, they use hydraulic pressure to extend them outward. Almost all other limbed animals have both flexor and extensor muscles, which produce smoother, less jarring, and much less unsettling movements.

To extend their legs, spiders rapidly increase pressure in their cephalothorax -- the round, bulb-like midsection to which all the legs are connected. This increase in pressure sends hemolymph (blood) flowing to the extremities, causing the legs to stretch outward. When moving, spiders innately increase and decrease body pressure in fractions of a second to quickly skitter about.

shutterstock_124988432.jpgFar from only powering basic locomotion, hydraulics endows certain spider species with prodigious jumping abilities. Jumping spiders can leap more than fifty times their own body length by swiftly boosting blood pressure in their third and fourth limbs.

Male spiders of the subgroup Entelegynae also utilize hydraulics for another function: to power their genitalia. It's theorized that hydraulics may enhance genital mobility, potentially improving the lock between male and female spiders during mating.

Though hydraulics obviously has its advantages, the fact that a spider is basically a hydraulic system gives rise to a key vulnerability. If a spider's cephalothorax is punctured, movement will be severely inhibited, as the system's pressure will drop precipitously. This also explains why the legs of dead spiders curl inward. The hydraulic system has been taken completely offline, while the flexor muscles go into rigor mortis.

Rigor mortis is a state that many of us would like to see spiders in, but remember, though these eight-legged critters may peak our ingrained fears, they aren't inherently vile or vicious. They construct beautiful works of art in the form of pristine webs and prey upon the animal that is perhaps the biggest zoological threat to mankind: the pesky mosquito.

(Image: Wolf Spider via Shutterstock)

February 2013 Archives

Is Alcohol a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

August 30th, 1904, 2:30 p.m., St. Louis, Missouri: The time and place for the marathon race of the Third Olympiad.  

The day was sweltering, with temperatures rising past ninety degrees. The 34 runners weren't breathing the air that day; they were drinking it. As they took their places at the start line, they stretched and heaved with nervous anticipation, knowing that they would be forced to plod along dirt roads studded with rocks, and to surmount seven towering hills. The racers' brows dripped with perspiration before the race was even underway. Their sweat-drenched clothes clung to their bodies. At the crack of a gunshot, the contest commenced. It quickly degenerated into a debacle. 

For some inane reason, someone thought it was a good idea to have horses precede the racers. Before long, competitors were choking on clouds of dirt and dust that were kicked up by their hooves. Wild dogs were also on the loose that day, and chased many of the runners off the course.

When all was said and done, over half of the field succumbed to the fumes, heat, and utterly ridiculous conditions. The man who survived the fastest was Thomas Hicks, at a time of 3:28:53. It remains the slowest winning time in an Olympic marathon ever.

Despite the slogging pace, Hicks almost didn't make it. Demoralized and lagging in the final stages, he begged his managers to let him concede, but they did not. Instead, they gave him three egg whites, strychnine, and a large helping of brandy. This questionable sustenance allowed Hicks to finish the race, but almost killed him in the process. No wonder, because strychnine -- then known as a stimulant, but today used as a pesticide -- can, even in very small doses, cause vomiting, muscular convulsions, and rapid death by asphyxiation.

Marathon_Hicks1904.jpgThomas Hicks receiving support from his managers on his way to a gold medal victory.

What was it that drove Hicks from the jaws of defeat into the arms of victory? Egg whites, though rich in protein, aren't known to give sudden athletic boosts and, given its side effects, strychnine hinders athletic performance more than it helps -- but what about alcohol? After all, Greek competitors in the original Olympic Games would commonly imbibe wine potions to augment their performance. Centuries later, Roman chariot riders fed their horses honeyed alcohol to make them run faster. 

Despite its use in the ancient world, and though alcohol is the most commonly consumed drug amongst athletes, today, no serious competitor would think to throw back a few drinks before a competition. Even in small quantities, alcohol can impair reaction time, motor control, balance, information processing, and judgment -- all essential sporting skills. 

So then why has everyone, at one time or another, heard the phrase "I play better when I'm drunk?" 

Granted, the imbiber uttering this platitude often isn't referring to basketball, football, or anything very physiologically demanding, but they are usually talking about a game that's at least partially skill based, such as bowling, billiards, darts, or even baseball. 

There's no hard evidence to back the common assertion of alcohol-improved performance, but anecdotes abound. You probably can point to a few yourself. Most notably, in 1998 pitcher David Wells threw a perfect game for the New York Yankees while self-reportedly "half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath and a raging, skull-rattling hangover." Is it possible that alcohol could, in some small way, enhance performance? 

Well, we know that performance in any skill-based game is at least partly affected by one's psychological state. For example, it is widely accepted that the reason why athletes under-perform under pressure is because they "think too much." It's thought that this disquieting state causes minor deviations in repetitive athletic tasks, such as shooting or swinging motions, adversely affecting sports performance. Athletes execute repetitive tasks better when they do so automatically, without thinking, relying simply on muscle memory.  

Now, I wonder, what's a great way to return someone to a calmed, unthinking state? I think you can guess the answer: A nice cold one. 

In an article written in 2010, two sports psychologists somewhat humorously unveiled their Optimal Altered State theory:

"It is our contention that certain individuals--specifically, competitors who are average/good but not exceptional in a particular sport--perform best in competitive arenas that allow the easy consumption of alcohol (darts, bowling, pool, etc.) when they reach what we term their Optimal Altered State, or OAS. Now, clearly this is not the moment we see someone doubled over talking to the toilet bowl for comfort, or standing atop a building yelling that they know the secrets of the Woodstock festival. We are talking about that point--this may be one drink for some people; four or five for others--where you have consumed just enough alcohol to make you feel supremely gifted." 

These experts stress that their theory is not an endorsement of drinking, merely an acknowledgement that "the positive psychological effects of imbibing moderate amounts of alcohol might outweigh the negative physical effects" in certain instances. 

This may very well be true. After all, it was three egg whites, strychnine, and a nip of liquid confidence that propelled Thomas Hicks to an Olympic gold medal on a swelteringly hot August day in St. Louis more than a century ago.

(Primary Source: Distilled History)
(Image: {{PD-US}})