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Dispatches

Dancing in the UV Light
Giving Swallows the boot
Bottoms Up
Get Off of My Cloud
Holy Mackerel, Batman!
Grandfather Knows Best
Illustrations by Greg Mably

 

Dancing in the UV Light
Jumping spiders literally glow before they mate. Ultraviolet reflectors on males help them attract females, according to a study recently published in the journal Science. “This is the first time that UV light has been shown to have different sex-specific effects in courtship in any animal,” says Daiqin Li, an associate professor of entomology at the National University of Singapore and one of the authors of the study. Li and two other scientists observed male and female jumping spiders, which have spectacular vision, both under UV light and without it. Under UV light, patches on the male reflect light and appear shiny, while sections on the female fluoresce. Scientists noticed that when they put the eight-legged guys and gals together without UV light, the females simply ignored the males, like middle-school kids at a dance. Without the UV light, the males didn’t care much for the females either. But when the scientists put the spiders under full-spectrum light—including UV—the female spiders seemed to notice the shining patches on their male counterparts, revealing to the scientists the signals the animals use to entice each other. The spider couples then started their mating dance, complete with mood lighting.—Susan Cosier
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Giving Swallows the Boot
Soccer fans flocking to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup might be dealing barn swallows a serious blow. Plans for a new airport, which would be built partly in anticipation of a tourism boom, could interfere with a reed bed where three million swallows roost. Each summer evening thousands of these agile birds soar through the air before descending into the reeds for the night. A proposed runway flight path, however, would cut through the roosting site, threatening not just the swallows but passengers on the planes if the birds are sucked into the engines. “They congregate in such large numbers in this reed bed because it’s surrounded by a monoculture of sugarcane,” says Neil Smith, a conservation manager at BirdLife South Africa. “There are no other suitable roosting places.” But like soccer, swallows, too, have global appeal. These swallows represent 8 percent of the species’ population in Europe, where they are considered symbols of spring. BirdLife has received hundreds of written objections—from England especially—and last November, 500 people gathered at the roosting site to show their support for the birds.—Melissa Mahony
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Bottoms Up
Kopi Luwak is the world’s most expensive coffee, with a price tag—more than $500 a pound—that packs an earth-shattering caffeine jolt. The reason is that the grinds are made from the waste of the Asian palm civet. (“Kopi” is Indonesian for coffee, and “luwak” is the word for palm civet.) The civets, catlike mongooses from Indonesia, eat coffee cherries and excrete the beans, which are collected, washed, and sold. The civet’s gastric juices break down bitter proteins in the beans, University of Guelph food scientist Massimo Marcone has found. The result is a sweet brew with an unsavory backstory. Customers are attracted to the novelty and rarity, and even the price itself.  “It’s a coffee that, once consumed, gives you the bragging rights to say that you had the rarest, most expensive beverage in the world,” says Marcone. It’s “just about the most exotic, most arcane coffee experience you could have,” agrees Michael Beech of Raven’s Brew Coffee Roasters, a former Kopi Luwak vendor. But “if you’re a coffee connoisseur, you’re going to realize it’s a crappy cup of coffee.”—Rebecca Zerzan
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Get Off of My Cloud
Nicky Moss, one of Great Britain’s top female paragliders, was soaring more than a mile and a half above northern New South Wales, Australia, when she heard a screech behind her just before a wedge-tailed eagle crashed headlong into the canopy of her glider. Shortly after, another eagle joined the attack. One of the birds dove directly at Moss, striking her on the back of the head and in the process becoming entangled in the glider’s rigging. As the eagles, which can attain wingspans of more than seven feet, clawed at Moss’s equipment, the startled flyer screamed at the birds as she plummeted toward earth. Less than 400 feet from the ground, the eagles freed themselves, and Moss made a safe landing. Though it is common for paragliders to share air space with eagles, attacks like this one are uncommon. Bill Heinrich, a veteran raptor biologist with the Peregrine Fund, says the attack may have been a case of mistaken identity. “They must have taken [Moss] for some large, strange bird and wanted to get her out of their territory,” he says.—Bob Grant
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Holy Mackerel, Batman!
A newly discovered species of neotropical catfish was recently named for Batman by ichthyologist Pablo Lehmann of the Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. Otocinclus batmani was found in a small tributary to the Pure River in Colombia, and in two creeks that empty into the Amazon in Peru. At less than two inches, the catfish is tiny, like other members of its genus. It’s differentiated primarily by its markings—specifically the dark, W-shaped tail-fin spot that reminded Lehmann of the famous bat signal projected into the skies of Gotham City to summon the Caped Crusader. Lehmann says he chose the name not just for its descriptive properties but “to create environmental consciousness among children, the fans of the Batman comics.” The batfish is already being exported for use in the aquarium trade. By studying its commercial status, as well as its biology and ecology, Lehmann also hopes to fan the interest of future generations of ichthyologists. As he points out, “Batman is always in fashion.”—Hilda Brucker

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Grandfather Knows Best
A grandpa’s sage advice may be the biggest breakthrough in bug repellent since DEET. Scientists with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have isolated two insect-repelling compounds from leaves of the American beauty-berry plant, a shrub native to much of the southeastern United States. The research began in 2004 after ARS botanist Charles Bryson told colleagues that his Mississippian grandfather used crushed beautyberry leaves to keep insects off his horses—a trick some people used on themselves. Tests show that callicarpenal, one of the isolated compounds, is just as effective against mosquitoes and black-legged ticks (the main carrier of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in humans) as DEET. Although other homespun cures have been put to the test, they don’t often lead to any big discovery. “There is some validity to the folk remedy in this case,” says ARS chemist and lead researcher Charles Cantrell. Moral of the story? Scrub behind your ears, eat your vegetables, and always listen to your elders.—Erin Scottberg
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