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Last week in science: January 29

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Courtesy Tszho1997 (CC BY-SA 3.0) | The Daily Wildcat

A lufengosaurus dinosaur skeleton in the Hong Kong Science Museum. Researchers have identified preserved soft material within a lufengosaurus skeleton almost 200 million years old.

In case you missed them, here are four science stories that broke ground last week around the world.

Robotic bat darts through the air

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and California Institute of Technology have built and tested “Bat Bot”, a robot bat capable of flight under its own power. Their research was published last Wednesday.

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A bat’s flapping method of flying could be more maneuverable than the rotor-driven drones and quadcopters that fill the skies today. In an interview with Science News, Caltech associate professor of aerospace engineering and Bren Scholar Soon-Jo Chung explained that “bat flight is the holy grail of aerial robotics.”

Using sensors and a computer to guide its silicone wings, Bat Bot is an example of biomimicry—design based on natural life. Although Bat Bot’s wings might allow it to fly in wind better than rotor-driven alternatives, the robot is still so fragile that it requires a safety net when it flies.

Cyborg insect offers potential for medical field

Charles Stark Draper Laboratory (CDSL) in Massachusetts has designed a system that enables them to manipulate a dragonfly’s flight

Researchers with the CDSL and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have designed backpacks for the insects that connect to light-sensitive neurons in their eyes. These dragonflies have been genetically modified to be more sensitive to light, making them easier to control using liwght pulses. 

The project is called DragonflEye and it goes much deeper than light pulses. A device has also been created that wraps around the dragonfly’s spine, enabling a controller to determine the dragonfly’s flight path and speed. Genetic modification is also focused on the so-called “steering neurons” located in the nerve cord, which enables dragonflies to make sharp, precise turns. 

Some officials at the CDSL said that this type of  technology applicable in the medical field, such as improving surgeries. The project was initially born from engineers observing animals in flight to learn how they improve the design of drones. 

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Dinosaur soft tissue preserved

The predominant belief in paleontology has been that only bones and teeth commonly survive to the current day. Any soft tissues would likely have rotted away within a couple million years. 
A new find has provided more preserved soft tissue for study. Scientists have discovered collagen, a main structural protein, in the remains of a 195 million-year-old long-necked lufengosaurus  dinosaur. This is a new record for soft tissue preservation, as they typically decay long before the preservation process begins. Other finds have been much younger.
To prevent damage to the specimen, scientists used infrared spectroscopy to observe the interior of the bones, where they found the soft tissue. Evidence of an iron oxide from the dinosaur’s blood was also found. The current focus is on how the soft tissue could have survived for so long and how it was preserved so perfectly. 
Experts believe this discovery has the potential to change how dinosaurs are studied, categorized and understood both genetically and physically.  

RELATED: Four UA researchers named Bisgrove Scholars

Texas reaches preliminary decision on evolution in school

The Texas Board of Education has held the first of two binding votes on retaining language in the list of biology education standards that some say challenges evolution. 
The board voted 9-5 to keep the language, and second vote will take place in April. 
Evolution has become an intricate aspect of science since Charles Darwin’s theory of “descent with modification” began to spread around the world. 

Although it is one of the building blocks of modern biological thought, evolution has always been a point of contention in public schools, where some policy makers and advocates argue alternate theories such as intelligent design should also be taught. 
One of the best-known cases may be the Scopes trial in which a public high school teacher was taken to court due to teaching evolution in his science class. Scopes was found guilty but the charges were dropped on a technicality.
In Texas, this first vote retains language such as the “sudden appearance” of life and a request that students “analyze and evaluate” evolutionary processes. While not outwardly discrediting evolution as a scientific theory, some believe that it challenges the idea. Lessons on the origin of life and other important concepts will remain. 

Follow Nicole Morin on Twitter.



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