(Inside Science) -- The biggest, the oldest, the fastest -- according to journalist Matthew LaPlante, we can learn a lot from nature's record-setters, from how to fight cancer and aging, to how to build safer airplanes.
“There’s such exceptional information to be learned by things that break all of the rules, that somehow evolve to be bigger or somehow evolve to be smarter or somehow evolve to metabolize slower. And for a long time we didn’t look at those outer edges of the bell curve because we were so focused on the things in the middle,” said Matthew LaPlante, author of the book Superlatives: The Biology of Extremes.
Some of the most extreme creatures in the world are tiny, nearly microscopic animals known as tardigrades.
“They’re called water bears. They’re adorable. They will shrink down into a semi-living form that’s only really like 3% of its original weight, like they’ll just retain basically the crust of who they were. And they’ll just wait. They’ll just wait and wait and wait until a better day comes along. And we can shoot tardigrades into outer space, we can throw radiation on them, we can dehydrate them. They can go without food for years and years. You can freeze them at temperatures that would kill anything else and they’ll come back again and again,” said LaPlante.
Some researchers think tardigrades could hold the secret of how to slow or reverse human aging. Another one of nature's most extreme creatures -- the peregrine falcon -- might have something to teach airplane engineers.
“The peregrine falcon, the fastest bird in the world, can dive so fast that it’s falling at a rate of a soccer field every single second. And nobody knew how fast they could dive until a guy decided that he was going to start skydiving with his pet falcon,” said LaPlante.
When a peregrine dives, it raises specialized feathers on its back to prevent stalling -- a trick that the aeronautics industry might be able to copy. On an airplane, stalling is an aerodynamic problem where there is not enough air flowing over the wings to create the amount of lift needed to hold up the plane.
“People have been dying in stall-caused airline crashes since as long as we’ve had flight. And we might have the answer for that now because somebody thought to study this bird.”
LaPlante’s fascination and research into the extremes in the animal kingdom won’t be stopping anytime soon.
“And so, answering that why and telling really cool, amazing stories about how these organisms came to be this way, what it means for our world and what we can learn from them and what we can take away from them,” said LaPlante.