Saturday, November 1, 2008

Polar bear hair or loo roll? Shark skin or cheese grater? Welcome to the animal kingdom in extreme close-up

Viewed at extreme magnifications of 1,000 times or more, the natural world acquires a surreal beauty, rich with astonishing forms and spectacular patterns.

A new book, Nano Nature, gives us a rare glimpse into this bizarre 'nano' world. Using a scanning electron microscope (SEM), which can view objects at extreme magnification, Nano Nature explores this hidden world, revealing the complexity behind things we take for granted - a butterfly wing, a polar bear's hair or a fruit fly's eye.

The images are produced in monochrome and then hand tinted to enrich their detail.

It may look like a toilet roll, but these tubes are polar bear 'guard' hairs - the coarse outer layer that protects the finer under-fur from the elements. Although they look white, they are translucent and each air-filled hollow heat-proofs the bear

These sharp, jagged 'teeth' could easily be mistaken for an earth-digging machine, or some giant cheese grater, but they are, in fact, the tiny scales on the skin of a shark, composed of dentines - a tough material denser than bone and tough enough to graze metal. The top is coated with smooth enamel, providing a tough but flexible chain-mail coat of armour, preventing barnacles and parasites from attaching to them

A fruit fly's eyes are made up of many individual 'ommatidia' units, stacked together in a dome, with each functioning as a separate lens, producing multiple images that overlap to create a usable picture. Despite this, however, the fly still only has blurred vision, which is nowhere near as sharp as that of a mammal - more a mosaic interpretation rather than a full 'picture' like a photograph

Is this the vertiginous drop into the well of a spiral staircase or the tendril twists of a fire-fighter's hose? In fact, it is neither. It is the tight curl of a hummingbird hawkmoth's tongue, or 'proboscis', which is made of two flexible rods, with a muscular pump at the top of the passage, used to suck nectar from flowers. Rather then carry about an ungainly stalk, the moth is able to curl up its tongue and store it discreetly under its head until needed and, in some instances, the moths' tongue, when extended, is many times the length of its body
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