Spooky Science

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The days are getting shorter, the nights longer, and between Halloween and the Day of the Dead, it’s the creepiest, crawliest time of the year. We gathered some spooky species and stories to remind you that ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, aren’t the only things that go bump in the night…

 

 

Goblin Spider

Goblin spider-carapace. Scientists use a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to view goblin spiders in minute detail. ©AMNH/N. Duperre

Goblin spider-carapace. Scientists use a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to view goblin spiders in minute detail.

©AMNH/N. Duperre


Meet the uncanny critter known as the goblin spider, named for its unusual appearance and secretive habits. While this arachnid may look fearsome in this photograph, goblin spiders are actually tiny—a large one might be a tenth of an inch long. This image was taken with a scanning electron microscope, revealing the minute details of the goblin spider’s anatomy. Goblins are among the most poorly known spider groups, but over the past few years, scientists at the American Museum of Natural History have helped lead a global inventory that added hundreds of new species to the group.

 

 

Vampire Squid

Vampire squid model ©AMNH/D. Finnin

Vampire squid model

©AMNH/D. Finnin


This spooky cephalopod, the vampire squid, lives at depths sunlight never reaches, 2,000 to 4,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. Their two fins flap like wings to propel them through the water while their large eyes—the largest, relative to body size, of any known animal—help them detect the dim light generated by bioluminescent organisms and navigate their dark environment. When a predator threatens, a vampire squid thrashes around, waving its bioluminescent arm tips and ejecting luminescent mucus to confuse its attacker—giving the squid an opportunity to swim away.

To hide, this vampire pulls its webbed arms over its head so that only the dark inner side of its “cloak,” which covered in fang-like projections, or cirri, is exposed. In another neat trick, vampire squids can fool predators into thinking they’ve disappeared into the deep thanks to light organs on their underside that mimic eyes. When a squid contracts the muscles around these photophores, the eyes “disappear”—making it seem as though the squid has slipped away. 


Ghost Pepper

Ghost peppers are one of the most spiciest peppers in the world.  Wikimedia via Thaumatergist

Ghost peppers are one of the most spiciest peppers in the world. 

Wikimedia via Thaumatergist


So hot it will haunt you, the ghost pepper, or Bhut Jolokia, is one of the spiciest peppers in the world. How do you measure something so scary spicy? One common way is using the Scoville Heat Units (SHU), which measures how  much sugar water needs to be added to a ground-up pepper until its heat can’t be tasted. The ghost pepper, one of the hottest peppers on the Scoville scale, needs to be diluted a million parts to one before the heat disappears, for a SHU of 1,000,000. Compare that to a jalapeno, which has a SHU of 2,500–5,000.

Although seeds are thought to be the hottest part of the pepper, the fire resides in the white inner membrane where seeds attach. Drinking water will not stop the intense burning sensation caused by peppers because capsaicin—the chemical responsible for the pepper’s pungency—is not water-soluble. For a better remedy, try milk! 

 

Zombie Ant 

Zombie ants are ants infected by a toxin that assumes control of the ant's brain.  Image courtesy of D. Hughes. 

Zombie ants are ants infected by a toxin that assumes control of the ant's brain. 

Image courtesy of D. Hughes. 


Ants infected with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis might as well be the “walking dead.” This diabolical fungus produces a toxin that assumes control of the ant’s brain, compelling it to abandon its activities and wander off its trail to bite the underside of another fungus leaf. Once the so-called “zombie ant” attaches itself to this leaf, it promptly dies, and  a stalk structure sprouts from its head to disperse fungal spores that attach to other ants—and restart the zombie life cycle.  


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