Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why Insects Can't Fly Straight at Night - OhmyNews International

I remember a "Garfield" cartoon where Garfield dispassionately watches a moth swinging around a candle in smaller and smaller circles. Then its wings catch fire, and with a bloodcurdling wail, the moth falls to Earth and dies. Garfield, without blinking says, "Well, at least it didn't feel any pain."

Why on Earth can't these creatures fly straight? Actually, most of the time they do. We just don't see them winging their way under the stars to a chosen flower.

The reason we see them swinging around is because their guidance systems are based on a good system that didn't take into account the invention of modern artificial lighting. These creatures have evolved over millions of years, and suddenly, in the space of less than a hundred, the environment changes radically, and now they're ill-equipped to deal with these changes.

The eyes of moths and mantises are geared to steering by the moon or stars, with both objects set at optical infinity. Their basic rule of thumb requires them to fly at a specific angle to an optical stimulus. Science Professor and author Richard Dawkins writes that if this angle is 30 degrees, and the object is not set to infinity, then the rays spoking towards the eyes are no longer parallel, but converge, like the spokes of a wheel. He goes on to point out that one can "produce an elegant logarithmical spiral to the candle" using an angle of 30 degrees.

The science is interesting, but the reality has the proportions of a Greek tragedy. The creature of the night caught into a crazy spiral of light and then death.

A huge thing landed next to my dinner this evening, which I was eating next to a strong bright overhead light. I thought it was a bizarre looking insect, and when I made a movement it sprouted wings, and so I had this big bat like insect swooping around in dizzy circles, flirting first with one light, then the next. It finally landed on my blinds and I got a better look at it.

I found a wide-rimmed wine glass and quickly covered the creature, then inserted a piece of paper between it and the open end. From 1 cm away I could see exactly what this thing was: a gray praying mantis. Now its pincers were exposed, with pink edges almost like grasshopper legs, with barbs, in reverse. As my eyes looked over it, its head swiveled around at me, and its two big bug eyes blipped some alien impulse of me to the brain inside the beaked shaped head.

I'm glad I am the larger than life monster in this scenario. Imagine being a moth sized human, held between the pincers of such a horrible dragon? Having its beak dig into your stomach, like the creature in the original "Alien"!

More: Why Insects Can't Fly Straight at Night - OhmyNews International
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