The bumblebee and skin-deep speeds
One of the most frequently quoted examples of a paradox is the one of the Athenian, who claims that all Athenians lie. So, what is a paradox in biology? Something that works, which in theory should not work at all: a flying bumble bee with its bulky body and small wings had been termed a paradox until it was solved by Richard Bomphrey of the Royal Veterinary College of London. Although the bee’s wings are weak and small, they can, however, create airflows that separate from the wings and re-attach to form strong lift. How water striders move around on the water surface like ice-skaters on a frozen lake was another paradox, which was solved in 2004 by M.W. Denny of the Hopkins Marine Station in California.
A paradox of a different kind is that of tapeworms, for being hermaphrodites, but not even practicing cross fertilization like other hermaphroditic animals, e.g., earthworms and many snails, they multiply by self fertilization, a method that should stifle evolutionary change and adaptability. But nobody could argue that tapeworms have not been successful animals. For some people the cultivated banana plant is a paradox, too, as it has no seeds and is propagated entirely vegetatively as genetically identical clones. How can it possibly develop resistance to diseases, insect attacks, climate change? It’s a paradox that it’s still around.
The dolphin’s top swimming speed of nearly 50 km/hour had long been the centre of a controversy, known as Gray’s paradox (after the British physiologist Sir James Gray). Gray noted that dolphins have frequently been reported to swim as fast as the fastest ocean liners can go, yet if one bisected a dolphin, measured and calculated its muscle loading, one arrived at a figure of a possible maximum energy output one tenth of that required for the observed maximum swim speed. Obviously something didn’t match up. Either the reported speeds were wrong (which was unlikely, because there had been too many witnesses) or the dolphin’s muscles were capable of generating a 10 times greater energy than those of other mammals.
Yet under the microscope the dolphin muscle was no different from that of a fish, a horse, or even a human. A real paradox – until a German-born rocket specialist by the name of Max O. Kramer came along and thought of looking not at the muscle, but the skin of the dolphin. Kramer found that the dolphin skin was constructed in such a way that a thicker, watery layer was sandwiched between two very thin and tougher layers, so that the entire body was not only well protected against pressures, but actually was capable of reducing turbulences around the body during movements and creating a laminar flow instead.
The faster the dolphin would swim, the greater the effect of turbulence suppression would be and at top speeds the efficiency coefficient of the dolphin would then indeed be 10 times larger than that of a stiff body, e.g., a torpedo, dragged or propelled through the water. This example shows perhaps better than any other that technological thinking applied to zoological problems can, at times, lead to the wrong results, especially when the investigating engineer or technocrat fails to take into consideration the biological nature of the object. And that’s when the bionic approach proves so useful.
© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2016.
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