Muybridge Racing HorseCredit: Photos taken by Eadweard Muybridge (d. 1904)

In the animal kingdom there are many amazing feats and abilities of individual species.  Some of the things animals do seem to defy laws of physics, gravity and any logic.  How can snakes swallow whole animals five times larger than its head?  How can ants carry 10-50 times their weight?

 In the case of the reptile it has to do with its jaw construction.  The lower jaw is made of two halves which are joined at the front by ligament allowing it to spread. The upper jaw and lower jaw halves move independently.  The joints are loosely connected which allows them to widen to more than 180 degrees.  The prey is then swallowed head first for easier swallowing and muscle contractions move it down to the stomach.

 Ants can lift so much weight due to a physics concept called “scaling.”   Ants do not bulk up with weight lifting to increase muscle mass; they have the advantage over humans because of the ratio between their body size and body mass.  They have small body size and high muscle mass.  This allows them to carry heavy weights.

 So what aboA Bee Gathering PollenCredit: Photo courtesy of Jon Sullivanut bees? Bees are light; it takes 9-10 bees to equal the weight of one M&M chocolate candy.  The average bee weighs about 90 mg. and can carry about 40 mg of pollen.  They can fly about 15 miles per hour and eat pollen as well as carry it back to their hives.  A bee can travel several thousand miles to collect pollen for its hive and visit over 1,500 flowers to gather the pollen.  They use their legs to transport the pollen back to their hives.  To produce one pound of honey, a bee will cover the distance equal to about eleven square miles.

 What About Mammals?

 As with reptiles and insects, species of mammals also have some amazing abilities.  A question many have regarding felines is how they seem to always land on their feet.  In reality, they don’t, but there is a phenomenon that is amazing when they fall from certain distances.  Commonly called the “righting reflex,” cats have the ability twist in mid-air to right themselves and contort the body to end up almost like a parachute.  The cat has a small organ in its ear called the vestibular apparatus.  This organ, along with vision, helps the cat determine up from down.  

 The flexibility of the cat’s body allows it to twist in mid-air to right itself.  This stems from the flexibility of the backbone and the fact cats have no collarbone. This allows for upper body rotation.  The cat first rotates its head and front, the spine twists and the rear body aligns itself.  Cat Jumping From HeightCredit: Photo courtesy of Rudolph.A.FurtadoThe tail is used to balance.  The cat then arches its back to dissipate and absorb the impact.  It can also spread out its body much like a flying squirrel to decrease speed.  Once terminal velocity is reached, the cat can splay its legs to create drag and it tends to relax which helps with reducing injuries or the severity of injuries that do occur. Cats falling from short heights do not have enough time to right themselves and achieve terminal velocity and therefore, have a much higher risk of injury than from greater heights.  However, extreme heights will also put the cat at risk of major injury or death.  No one should assume a cat will always land on its feet and definitely should not experiment to see this righting reflex for themselves.

 Another example of amazing abilities in mammals is the notion of all four feet of a horse leaving the ground in a gallop.  How does the horse keep from falling down?  The horse has four distinct gaits, but it is only the gallop that we see the suspension phase when all four feet are off the ground at the same time.  This “hang time” is similar to an athlete going over a high jump or making a slam dunk in basketball.  The horses four feet tuck up underneath its belly and it glides in the air for seconds before the feet untuck and began the next beat of the four-count gait.  In early paintings the horse often had the legs extended while airborne but this is incorrect. The horse’s feet are tucked up in the suspension phase.  This was proven in 1877 when Leland Stanford hired a photographer, Eadweard Muybridge to document the suspension phase of a racing horse.

 The animal kingdom has many species with amazing abilities, including humans.  Some are explained by physics, some by anatomy; but still, some seem to defy everything we know.  The earth’s creatures are truly amazing.





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