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    Photo Gallery: The Dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum

    Much of my past two weeks was spent in Calgary, Alberta where some of you suggested a visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in nearby Drumheller. I'm so glad I made that trek--it ended up being one of the highlights of my trip. The paleontology museum is filled with incredible displays of dinosaur fossils and skeletons, including quite a few T-Rex's. The exhibits are beautifully arranged and lit, making them really fun to photograph as well. Here are a few of my favorites from the visit.

    Aging Suit Simulates Experience of Old Age

    Speaking of conceptual transhuman experiences, here's video of an "aging suit" that simulates the experience of being 75 years old. The Atlantic's James Hamblin tests this exoskeleton, which limits movement, impairs hearing, and blurs vision (to approximate cataracts). It's the latest invention of technologist (and ex-Imagineer) Bran Ferren's Applied Minds, and is intended to get people talking about issues around aging and long-term care.

    In Brief: Real Life Goat Simulator

    Our buddy and former writer Matt Braga reports on an experiment by English speculative designer Thomas Thwaites, who recently investigated what life would be like living as goat. As in, Thwaites donned custom limb prosthetics and lived among goats for a few days in the Swiss Alps. The bizarre experiment is more performance art project than scientific endeavor, but totally worth it for the surreal photographs.

    Norman
    I'm Fascinated By the Tree of 40 Fruit

    I've been into the idea of grafting, attaching a branch from one tree to another similar species, since I was introduced to the technique as a kid. Sam Van Aken grafts branches from 40 species of fruit tree to make a single gorgeous tree that bears 40 different kinds of fruit. Horticulture meets art! (via kottke)

    How Life Finds a Way in Earth's Extreme Environments

    "Life will find a way." That mantra isn't just true in Jurassic Park; nature's resilience is particularly noticeable in some of Earth's most extreme environments. From super-high flyers to super-deep swimmers, there's no shortage of strange evolutions on our planet that allow animals to perform some truly bizarre and nearly impossible feats in order to survive. A new exhibit at New York City's American Museum of Natural History rounds up some of the world's most extreme adaptations. Here's a look at just a few examples of the bizarre behaviors of Life At The Limits.

    Extreme Temperatures

    Frilly Leech — Even though it's own habitat almost never freezes, the frilly leech can survive 24 hours submerged in liquid nitrogen (-320f) in the lab. They can be stored up to 9 months at -130F and one was once revived after 2.5 years in the deep cold.

    Tardigrades — These tiny organisms, also known as water bears, can survive being completely dehydrated. They make proteins that revive their cells when water is introduced, coming back to life in as little as 4 minutes. They also can survive temperatures down to near-absolute-zero (-458F) and more than 302F.

    Ice Worm — Just like it's name says, this worm lives its entire lifecycle inside the glaciers of Alaska. If they get too close to the air and they feel sunlight warming the surface they burrow down deep to get away from the heat.

    The 10 Weirdest Creatures Hidden Deep In Earth’s Oceans

    A little over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, and because of our useless, clumsy lungs we can’t really explore it as much as we’d like. The sheer diversity of ocean life is unbelievable, especially when you head down 20,000 feet or more below the surface. Let’s commandeer a metaphorical bathysphere and discover some of the most bizarre animals living down in the depths of the ocean.

    Weird Ways Your Brain Triggers Pleasure

    The brain is a fascinating thing. Over our lifetimes, it makes billions of unique neural connections to guide our behavior towards pleasure and away from pain. But pleasure is a fascinating thing, and some very unlikely stimuli can make us feel it. Today, we’ll explore nine things that scientists, doctors and mindhackers have done to give themselves good feelings.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Ann Ross, Forensic Anthropologist

    When someone is murdered, the medical examiner isn't always able to discover the cause of death. Sometimes, especially in cases where a body has been buried for a long time, they have to call in a scientist that specializes in understanding how bones work. Ann Ross is a forensic anthropologist and the co-director of the Forensic Sciences Institute at North Carolina State University. It's her job to help authorities find buried bodies and inspect their bones to help puzzle out what brought about their demise. Ross chatted with us about what it's like to adapt tricks of the archaeological trade to find success in her unconventional field work.

    What's a forensic anthropologist?

    That's a good question because I always ask people what they think it is and I get so many different answers! It's the applied discipline of biological anthropology or skeletal biology. We are experts on bones. A lot of skeletal biologists are dealing with prehistoric or past populations but we apply that to contemporary issues or issues of the law.

    What kind of law? Is it crimes that have happened recently?

    Not necessarily recent. A lot of time we're experts in the tools that make some kind of pattern on the bone or a trauma. The medical legal community, the medical examiner, or law enforcement need our help in identifying the class of weapon that make the wound. Or was the fracture made at around the time of death or post mortem.

    The skeleton can tell us so much. We can tell everything that you do in life--it's almost mapped on your bones.

    Where is your lab? Do you work out of police offices?

    Most of us work in the university context. Quite a few of us work in medical examiner offices. There are other government agencies that contract forensics or have one on staff. I work at North Carolina State and when there's a case I get a phone call or an email. It can be from a medical examiner's office or the sheriff's department or the SBI. Generally it's remains that I need to see. I either go pick them up or bring them to the laboratory. A lot of times we reexamine cold cases. So it can be as old as the 70s or as recent as a year ago.

    In Brief: The Mystery of Dancing Droplets

    Back in March, Stanford researchers announced that they had found an explanation for an interesting phenomena: droplets of food coloring on glass spontaneously move and interact with each other. From the Stanford Report: "A puzzling observation, pursued through hundreds of experiments, has led Stanford researchers to a simple yet profound discovery: Under certain circumstances, droplets of fluid will move like performers in a dance choreographed by molecular physics." Super cool, thoughtfully explained, and the video (below) is beautiful.

    Norman
    Biomimetics: Studying Bird Flight for Flying Robots

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. This past month, we’ve been profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    When you’re trying to perfect robotic flight the obvious biological animal to mimic is, of course, the bird. But what’s less obvious is just how exactly you go about quantifying the physical capabilities of motion and engineering while in flight. At David Lentink’s lab at Stanford he is combining specially trained animals with high-tech motion capture to puzzle out just what it is about bird wings that make them such fantastic flyers.

    Photo credit: Stanford

    Lentink has trained hummingbirds and parrotlets to perform special maneuvers -- flying from point A to point B -- so that he can capture images of them in motion. With high-speed cameras he can capture 50 images for each wing beat. In addition, using two high-speed lasers that flash from 1,000 to 10,000 times per second, Lentink is able to create an image of how the air flows behind the birds as they fly.

    “Our goal is to understand the flow and the forces they generate when they fly and we developed special instruments to do that. You can’t work with a bird like an airplane. We train our birds based on food rewards. So now we point to perch where they need to fly to and they will fly there,” says Lentink. “We’re trying to discover how birds manipulate air to fly more effectively and move better.”

    In addition to studying wing movement and the manipulation of air, Lentink and his team have started to research the bird’s vision and how it combines with their wing movements to determine direction. “What do they see and how do they use what they are seeing to control their flight? The main thing we’re looking at is optical flow, something that robots also use. How images move over the retina, the intensity of images over the retina, and how birds use that to decide to go left, right, or stabilize,” he says.

    It may sound like very fundamental research, he says, but it’s essential if there’s any hope of building a future robot that can fly like a bird. Especially when you consider the limitation of current flying robots. Quadcopters, according to Lentink, aren’t good at maneuvering through turbulence, around buildings, or through trees and narrow spaces. Yet at the moment they’re our most popular flying bot. Birds, on the other hand, don’t have any trouble performing any of those difficult tasks.

    Biomimetics: Learning about Camouflage from Cuttlefish

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    Few animals in the world are better at camouflaging themselves then the cephalopod. A family of ocean-going invertebrates that include the octopus, the squid, and the cuttlefish, these squishy little guys are better than anybody at disappearing into their surroundings. And that makes them the ideal candidates for biomimicry.

    In Woods Hole, Massachusetts, biologist Roger Hanlon is focused on puzzling out the cellular systems that make quick color changes possible. This is done both inside the lab and outside in the field. By watching octopi morph their appearance in their native environment and observing cuttlefish perform quick adaptation in controlled experiments, Hanlon has been able to learn not only about the makeup of their skin that allows them to change, but also how they use their sensory organs to determine which pattern they’ll mimic next.

    “The field work allows us to frame the big questions. By immersing myself in their sensory world, not mine, seeing them behave normally lets me see the wider scope in an evolutionary context,” says Hanlon.

    But it’s not just the animal itself that is giving insight into the physics of camouflage, he says. “It’s extremely important to measure the light field -- how much is there and how does it change. Because what a predator does or doesn’t see depends on what kind of light is available and it’s own visual system. That brings us to visual perception. What I’m really studying is the visual perception of the many predators that eat the cuttlefish and the visual perception of the cuttlefish themselves. A cuttlefish can change its appearance because it has to look around its environment to create the pattern that works.”

    Because cuttlefish are genetically predisposed to remain camouflaged at all times until they hit sexual maturity, they make the perfect lab “rats.” Hanlon and his team “capitalize on that strange situation” by giving them a series of different backgrounds to mimic -- from images of sand and pebbles to checkerboards -- and capture images of their color change.

    Biomimetics: Lessons from MIT's Sprinting Cheetah Robot

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    The best movers in the world are animals, so why do all of our transportation modes rely on wheels and not legs? That’s the question that inspires the work at MIT’s Biomimetics lab. According to Sangbae Kim, an associate professor at the lab, their main goal is to develop walking robots that move as well as any animal -- and shape how all robots move in the future.

    They decided the best inspiration for locomotion would be to find the fastest moving animal on Earth and mimic its makeup in robot legs. Enter the cheetah. Capable of speeds up to about 64 miles per hour, the big cat outpaces all other running animals in the world (except, perhaps, the Paratarsotomus macropalpis -- a beetle the size of a sesame seed that can run 322 body-lengths per second compared to the Cheetah’s 16.)

    “Each animal has their advantage, but the cheetah uses speed as a survival skill. It doesn’t have many other skills -- it’s jaws aren’t very strong -- the only thing it’s good at is speed. And that’s why we can identify it’s mechanical features. We’re looking at it’s leg shape, mass distribution, the joints they’re using, and their gait,” says Kim.

    The cats are also incredibly good at changing direction at high speed. Their unique muscular makeup allows them to use their tail to pivot at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, says Kim, cheetahs are endangered so they can’t study one in the lab. The team has learned about the cats’ unique abilities by watching nature videos and reading studies by the few scientists that have had the chance to study them.

    “We read papers about them. Researchers at Royal College in England they recorded forces and slow motion in a captive cheetah. We take inspiration from videos and learn mechanical aspects like how they achieve a stable running,” he says.

    What they’ve learned is that the animal’s leg shape is essential: it has a slender leg and all of its muscles are concentrated up next to its body. That way they minimize their energy use and maximize the swing of their legs.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Chris Buddle, Arachnologist

    Chris Buddle spends a lot of his time crawling around on his hands and knees in the high arctic. He’s one of the world’s very few experts on the eight-legged creepy crawlies that send a shiver up the spine of most folks. Buddle is an arachnologist and an associate professor of forest insect ecology at McGill University. And he loves spiders. He chatted with us about how the heck he goes about finding teeny tiny animals scuttling around the northern Tundra and why spiders aren’t scary, they’re absolutely fascinating.

    Why study spiders?

    They’re predators almost entirely within their own food web. They have a significant impact on whatever system they’re in. Whether they run down beaches as tides go out and catch invertebrates or live in the high tundra. No matter where they are, they are always eating other things and sometimes each other. They’re always eating. They have an impact on other animals around them.

    They also have very interesting applications as pest control agents. Think of how many pests they eat -- mosquitoes around our houses or crop pests -- they have an impact on pest species.

    They have all kinds of uses in the biomedical field. The silk they produce has interesting properties, people use it in the wound care industry as bandages and they use biophysical properties as a model for the development of new fabrics or ropes.

    The other thing is that they feed all kinds of other animals. In the high arctic a lot of birds, and when they first arrive to breed, after the snow and ice starts to melt the first thing they encounter as food is spiders.

    Do we have any idea how many spiders there are in the world?

    We don’t know the number in the world but I’ve done the calculation in individual habitats. It’s true that you’re almost always close to a spider. Density estimates in the arctic show there’s half a spider per meter squared. That’s 4,000 wolf spiders per hectare [about 2.5 acres]. It’s a lot. And that’s just one system. There’s a lot of spiders out there wandering around. So everyone should be an arachnologist!

    Female Anna's Hummingbird at 240fps

    This video isn't perfect, but I thought it was too awesome not to share. When I was walking to lunch the other day in San Francisco, I encountered an absolutely fearless hummingbird. At one point, she hovered about 3 inches from my face. When I realized she was going to hang around for a moment, I grabbed my phone. I'm pretty certain she's a female Anna's but she could also be a female Costa's. I shot this with my iPhone 6 Plus, which definitely feels like a Louis CK chair-in-the-sky moment for me.