By Claire Harris
Ahh spiders. For a relatively small creature, they have the power to turn even the bravest among us into a quivering mess – and we include ourselves in that club. At our Sydney office, for example, we have seen dozens of St Andrew’s Cross spiders loitering around our newsblog garden.
Spider numbers change according to the conditions. A hot dry summer is not good for spiders. But also, too much rain can lead to increased fungal infections and more predators out to eat spiders for breakfast.
So what’s happening with all these spiders?
According to Dr Barry Richardson, Honorary Research Fellow at our Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC), they’re everywhere because it’s spider dating season!
“This is the time of year when most young spiders begin their active independent life; males especially moving around looking for mates,” Barry explains.
With all these single spiders out seeking companionship, we’ve been hearing more and more stories from people getting into sticky situations with these amorous arachnids.
One tale from a colleague of ours was enough to send shivers down anybody’s spine. While out jogging, she ran face first into a big web, almost swallowing the web’s resident. Luckily the spider was quick to get away; in fact it leapt off the web, scuttling for its life.
That got us thinking: is it common for spiders to leap off their webs to avoid bumbling creatures like humans?
Barry says that what our colleague observed was normal behaviour.
“Spiders are subject to very heavy predation by birds and wasps (depending on their size). So as soon as they see or feel (through vibrations) something coming they commonly leap to safety,” he said.
“When they land in the litter they curl up, stay still and try to look like a piece of debris. Orb spiders will also often run off the side of their web into the foliage if given the chance. This means they can quickly get back to the web to repair it and capture any lunchtime snacks.”
This behaviour is intriguing enough, but there’s plenty more to be interested in when it comes to spiders. Barry (who is a kangaroo and rabbit expert that took up jumping spiders as a hobby in retirement) also shared these wonderful eight-legged facts:
Have you ever wondered how the world appears to a spider? Spiders are hairy because they mostly ‘see’ the world through minute vibrations in the air and the hairs are part of a very sensitive detection system. They also use vibrations through the ground.
Why do some spiders have big eyes? Because they hunt by sight and their eyes operate as telephoto lenses capable of zooming four times life size. While there are only two big-eyed, hunting families of spiders — the jumping and the wolf spiders — these spiders make up more than half the individuals around our houses and yards.
We are big fans of the insect world, so it should come as no surprise that we look after the world’s largest collection of Australian insects and related groups such as mites, spiders, nematodes and centipedes at the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC).
Housing over 12 million specimens (and a team of experts like Barry), the Collection is used by Australian and international researchers, industry, government and university students as a critical and authoritative resource for evolutionary biology, ecology, natural resource management, biosecurity and biogeography. We are constantly adding to the collection, which is growing by more than 100,000 specimens each year.
You can find out more about ANIC here.
Before we go, one last fact.
Some spiders ‘call’ for mates by tapping their feet, waving their legs and vibrating their abdomens to a species-specific pattern. Check out the dancing peacock spiders, only found in Australia, they should prove that not all spiders are frightening.
A living dinosaur. A missing evolutionary link. A specimen unlike any seen before it.
With such weighty words being thrown around, you could be forgiven for thinking we had discovered a Yowie, a Loch Ness Monster, or another Jurassic Park script. But the truth, while being a little more unassuming, is no less the stuff of legends.
In actual fact, we’ve found an enigma.
Today, we unveiled the Aenigmatinea glatzella – which has been coined the ‘enigma moth’ – to the world. This tiny insect, which has so far only been found in an isolated pocket of Kangaroo Island, South Australia, represents not just an entire new species of moth, but an entire new family. It’s the Lepidoptera equivalent of discovering, say, the platypus.
This is the first time since the 1970s that a new family of primitive moths has been identified anywhere in the world. So for a bald bug that lives, mates and dies in one day and could fit on a five cent piece, the enigma moth is causing quite a stir.
You can read more about the moth and our role in its discovery – as well as the launch of a foundation to support research into Australian moths and butterflies, and the moths and butterflies in our Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra – here. But in the meantime, we present to you the top five facts about this flying enigma:
- It is helping us crack evolution’s code. DNA analysis indicates that the evolution of moths and butterflies is even more complex than previously thought. For example, while the discovery of this new moth strengthens the evolutionary relationships between other primitive moth families, it also suggests that tongues evolved in moths and butterflies more than once.
- The species name glatzella has an amusing double meaning. While bestowed in honour of its discoverer, Dr Richard Glatz, in German glatze means ‘bald head’. Indeed, this cryptic moth is bald – it hardly has any scales on its head. But elsewhere on the body, these scales appear as a brilliant purple and gold.
- It’s rare. It has so far only been found at one location on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia.
- It lives on Southern Cypress-pine trees (Callitris gracilis), a very ancient element of our flora dating back to the supercontinent Gondwana.
- The adult moths are short-lived. In just one day they emerge from their cocoons, mate, females lay their eggs, and then die.
And, in case you haven’t seen it already, we’ve created this excellent short film of the enigma moth to honour its official introduction to the public. Enjoy!
By Andrew Warren
Deep in the bowels of our Lab 22 manufacturing facility in Clayton, Melbourne, we’ve created something extraordinary – components for the world’s first 3D printed jet engine.
These engines aren’t just remarkable because they’ve been 3D-printed, but because they were created by using a range of different additive manufacturing technologies and successfully combined into a finished product that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible.
We used our Arcam Electron Beam Melting printer in combination with cold spray technology to produce a range of components for the engines, which also used a new titanium metal powder we developed that performs better than previously used products, and is also cheaper to use.
The 3D-printed jet engines (one was featured at the International Air Show in Avalon) prove that test parts can be produced in days instead of months. This could result in incredible benefits for the international aeronautical industry.
Here’s a video produced by the team at Monash that shows the process behind the printing.
Monash University’s Centre for Additive Manufacturing led the project in collaboration with our Lab 22 researchers and Deakin University. The project was supported by funding from the Science Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF).
SEIF is a Fund that strategically invests in scientific research for the national benefit – helping Australian industry, furthering the interests of the Australian community or contributing to the achievement of Australian national objectives. The fund supports collaborative partnerships between scientific, research and tertiary institutions, with an emphasis on exchange of scientific knowledge and ideas.
As we continue to expand our range of additive manufacturing machines at Lab 22, we’re able to further push the boundaries by developing new techniques that harness the expanded commercial and technical capabilities available.
Projects like this are helping put us at the forefront of the global aerospace industry and attract the attention of international companies looking to create stronger ties with Australian manufacturing.
By Dr Narelle Fegan and Dr Andrew Leis
Keeping our food safe
The recent outbreak of hepatitis A, which is thought to be associated with the consumption of frozen berries, has highlighted food safety concerns and sparked debates around country of origin labelling and testing of imported foods. Ensuring the safety of our food supply can be a complex process that involves maintaining good hygienic practices in the production and handling of foods at all stages between the farm and consumption.
With some foods, we can reduce the risk of foodborne illness through a heating process, which includes practices like cooking, canning and pasteurisation. However, with fresh produce (such as leafy green and fruits), a heating step is less desirable – we have to rely more on hygienic production to deliver a safe food product. There are quality assurance schemes in place to ensure that fresh produce is grown, harvested, packed and transported to limit contamination by foodborne pathogens.
These schemes rely on people involved in all parts of the production chain following the procedures outlined, to deliver a product that is safe to consume. Such quality assurance schemes operate across the globe and imported products are required to meet the same hygienic standards as food produced in the importing country.
Can testing of food ensure it is safe to eat?
Microbiological testing of foods is only one aspect of quality assurance schemes designed to help keep our food safe. Scientific evidence and history tells us that testing of products for pathogens is not an efficient way of determining if food has been contaminated.
This is particularly true of pathogens that occur very rarely in food (such as hepatitis A) as only a very small amount of the food will be contaminated, and we can’t guarantee we will sample the portion of food where contamination occurs. The difficulties associated with pathogen testing of foods include:
- Contamination is not evenly distributed within the food and only certain portions of the food may contain the pathogen.
- Testing for foodborne viruses destroys the portion of food that is tested.
- Because the food is destroyed during testing, not all of the food can be tested as there would be nothing left for us to eat. Only some of the food can be tested – but sampling plans have been developed to try and maximise the chances of detecting foodborne pathogens.
- Testing methods for foodborne viruses in particular can be difficult to perform, as we have to try and isolate viruses and their genetic material from foods which are often very complex in nature (containing fats, sugars and salts, which can all make it more difficult to detect pathogens).
For these reasons testing of food is only one part of quality assurance schemes, with more attention focusing on hygienic production to limit the opportunities of food becoming contaminated with pathogens.
Why would frozen berries be at risk of carrying hepatitis A?
Freezing is a highly effective and convenient way to increase the shelf-life of foods, and unlike heat-based sterilisation techniques, it preserves most of the nutritional value of the food (some components, like vitamins, are quickly destroyed by heat). Freezing not only prolongs shelf life but also allows us to enjoy very seasonal products, such as berries, at any time of the year.
Preservation of viruses and bacteria during freezing is affected by the rate of freezing and the amounts of sugars and other molecules nearby that help to slow the growth of ice crystals. In a household freezer, water freezes quite slowly – consider the time it takes to freeze water in ice cube trays. Slow freezing favours the formation of ice crystals. As the crystals grow in size, they can kill some bacteria and viruses. On the other hand, high local concentrations of sugars and other molecules can protect the microorganisms from damage.
Frozen berries are generally safe to eat, and have only occasionally been involved in foodborne outbreaks. Hepatitis A virus infection as a result of eating contaminated food (not just berries) is also very rare, particularly in Australia where on average only five cases a year are associated with food consumption in Australia. This is very small compared to other foodborne pathogens in Australia such as Norovirus, where an estimated 276,000 cases a year are associated with food and bacteria, or Campylobacter where 179,000 cases are associated with the consumption of food.
What can we do to ensure the food we eat is safe?
It is not possible to ensure safety by testing a final product. Therefore, systems based on hazard analysis and identification of critical control points have been developed and adopted by governments and food producers through food regulations, industry guidelines and quality assurance schemes. However, human error through poor planning or poor execution can lead to one or more failures along the supply chain. The best thing we can do to ensure the food we eat is safe is to foster a culture of food safety. This means better educating all those involved in the food industry, as well as governments and consumers, so that they understand the safety risks associated with the production, manufacture and consumption of foods.Food safety needs to be seen as an investment, not a cost.
For more information, visit our website.
It’s been a momentous couple of days in the history of Australian space exploration. Just yesterday, the newest antenna in NASA’s Deep Space Network was officially commissioned at our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, five years to the day from its original ground breaking ceremony.
The new dish, Deep Space Station 35, incorporates the latest in Beam Waveguide technology: increasing its sensitivity and capacity for tracking, commanding and receiving data from spacecraft located billions of kilometres away across the Solar System.
The Canberra Complex is one of three Deep Space Network stations capable of providing two-way radio contact with robotic deep space missions. The Complex’s sister stations are located in California and Spain. Together, the three stations provide around-the-clock contact with over 35 spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond. You may remember this technology being utilised recently for the Rosetta and Philae comet landing; and for communicating with the ever so far-flung New Horizons spacecraft on its journey past Pluto.
As a vital communication station for these types of missions, the new antenna will make deep space communication for spacecraft and their Earth-bound support staff even easier.
But don’t put away the space candles just yet. For today marks the 55 anniversary of the signing of the original space communication and tracking agreement signed between Australia and the United States, way back on the 26th February 1960.
It is a partnership that has that has led to many historic firsts and breakthrough discoveries – the first flybys of Mercury and Venus, the vital communication link and television coverage of the first Moonwalk, robotic rover landings on (and amazing views from) the surface of Mars, the first ‘close-ups’ of the giant outer planets and first-time encounters with worlds such as Pluto.
So, we say welcome to the newest addition to the Deep Space Network and happy birthday to our space-relationship with the US. Here’s to another fifty five years of success!
P.S. We couldn’t finish the blog without including this little gem:
He has founded six successful companies, holds 20 patents and began his career as an engineer with a PhD in physics. And, a month ago, he took the reins as Chief Executive of CSIRO. We sat down with Dr Larry Marshall to hear how he’s settling in.
You’ve been in the job for a month now. What are your first impressions of CSIRO?
Well, I know it’s only been a month, but I already feel like there’s so much research happening here that I’ll need another lifetime to discover it all.
It’s clear to me that people who work here want to make a difference. They really care about science and the opportunities it can offer to the community, the environment and to the economy. They’re supportive of each other and really want us to be the best we can be.
Is there any research you’ve heard about at CSIRO that particularly stands out to you?
I could inundate you with examples. Just off the top of my head, we recently helped someone walk again by 3D printing a titanium heel bone that his surgeon was able to implant.
We’ve developed a technology that helps remotely control longwall mining equipment so miners are safer and productivity is boosted by 10%.
We’ve used our maths and informatics skills to develop a tool to predict the number of people who will go to hospital emergency departments and by helping the hospitals better plan, we’ve saved them tens of millions of dollars and reduced the time people wait for a bed.
Right through to other examples like the work we’ve done to breed the perfect prawn that by 2020 will add more than $120 million to the value of the industry.
I could keep going, but I should probably stop there.
There’s been some conjecture around your views on water divining recently. Is there anything you’d like to say on that subject?
My grandfather was friends with a tribal elder who would walk our land trying to feel where the river had gone – he explained to me as a kid that the river was still there just hidden beneath the ground. He was very successful in figuring out where Granddad should drill. Drilling is very expensive so you need all the help you can get.
Now clearly, that wasn’t a scientific experiment and I was wrong to quote figures for success – I said it right the first time – “have you seen farmers find water?” – but later realised I shouldn’t have used the word “dowsing” which to me means find water, but apparently there are more narrow interpretations.
I was surprised by the reaction but also by the number of letters of support I received from people who clearly got what I was trying to say, which was: Entrepreneurship is about seeing a problem and imagining a solution, then inventing the technology to solve it. The inventor of the flip phone at Motorola was doubtless inspired by Star Trek.
A couple of years back, CSIRO’s Materials Science and Engineering team came up with a way to miniaturise atomic clocks and do what the Grace satellites do to detect water via gravitational anomalies. Entrepreneurship, like science, isn’t about playing it safe – if we aren’t failing we aren’t trying hard enough.
For me there is no such thing as failure, there is only learning – we can always do better (especially me with the media).
CSIRO has been through a lot of changes in the past year. Is that all over now?
That’s true. We are emerging from some rapid structural changes and I can’t promise that change is now over – that would be unrealistic in a world moving as fast as ours.
What I want to do is help our organisation focus on how we can contribute to the innovation, discovery and growth that Australia has come to expect from its premier research organisation.
So how do you do that?
We’ve got to focus our efforts and continually measure and demonstrate our impact. We’ve got to be more entrepreneurial and agile. We’ve got to get our overheads down and create value for our customers, and we’ve got to create some more headroom for exploration.
The first step is to get the framework right and that comes down to our strategy. That’s my big priority and something we’ll be locking down before June.
I have learned a lot about lean innovation and focussing on where we are unique. You’ll hear more about this, but let’s just say we’re learning from the lean innovation movement. Each and every person in our organisation will have a voice in this…
The genius and the power of CSIRO is distributed – it’s in our people, our partners and our community. We know a diversity of views is critical to innovation performance.
The more I learn about this place, the more conversations I have, the more amazing things I discover about CSIRO. I will be endeavouring this year to meet as many staff as possible, to hear about their work, and to learn from our customers and stakeholders about what we need to do to make CSIRO even stronger and more successful.
And do you think we’ll be starting our dragon research anytime soon?
I guess we’ll have to wait to see what comes out in the strategy. We should check in with Sophie about it.