Tiny Flying ‘Bengal Tigers’ invade Brooklyn

BY Jenny Marder  December 3, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT

Common green darner dragonfly. Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images.

Once a week, I arrive home to find the New Yorker magazine on the floor, partly shredded by my dog, who devotes part of her lunch hour to terrorizing the mail slot, and then moves on to the mail.

Fortunately, I was able to salvage my favorite science story of the week in the magazine’s Dec. 3 issue: Richard Preston’s brilliant essay on dragonflies. Preston writes of a North American dragonfly species called the green darner, a swarm of which made a rare appearance in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park this fall. Savor, for example, this gorgeous description:

“It has a green thorax, a long abdomen of cerulean blue with a black stripe, clear wings, and bulging eyes the color of a Spanish olive. Green darners never attack people, but they have been seen bringing down hummingbirds. They are the Bengal tigers of the microworld.”

And this on their migration:

“They travel on sunny days just after a cold front has come through, riding on north winds. They go from Canada as far south as Veracruz, Mexico, covering as much as fifty miles a day. They have keen eyesight, and they follow topographical lines on the land — ridges, valleys, and especially shorelines.”

Who knew that a dragonfly feeding frenzy could be so interesting, or beautiful? If someone were to ask me what I love about science writing, I might just hand them this essay and leave it at that.

As a sidenote, Preston is also the writer responsible for what I maintain is a perfectly rational fear of the Ebola virus. Surely I can’t be the only one who worries that my liver will liquify and my skin develop a Tapioca pudding-like rash when I’m in neighboring Reston, Va. That’s the town where his science thriller on lethal viruses, The Hot Zone, was based. If you haven’t yet read the book, buy it immediately, along with some midnight snacks for when the nightmares keep you up.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Watch his discussion with Margaret Warner here or below:

“You know, basically when you look at the wall of the Grand Canyon, which goes down a mile, you are reading a history book,” Miles says. “You just have to know how to read the rocks. And the deeper you go, the further back in time go. Two billion years, that is about half the planet right there.

So geologists love the story that they can unfold there. It tells them a lot about erosion. It tells them about tectonics and volcanism, and it gives them a glimpse into the earlier days of our planet, without having to drill a deep hole.”

  • Update on the much-anticipated Mars news: The Mars Curiosity rover analyzed Martian soil from the planet’s Gale crater and found that it contained organic compounds like water and sulfur, possible building blocks for life. But they have “no definitive detection of Martian organics,” said Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, during Monday’s announcement. Watch the full NASA presser below:
  • From Frontline: “Researchers at Boston University have discovered 28 new cases of chronic brain damage in deceased football players — including 15 who played in the NFL — more than doubling the number of documented cases connecting football to long-term brain disease.”

  • Curious about which countries guzzled the most energy last year? Nature has designed this clickable guide to the world’s energy consumers, broken down by nation or fuel type or both.

  • Here’s a timelapse video of Earth captured by the International Space Station. Made with collected NASA videos by Italian film student Giacomo Sardelli.

Further Up Yonder from Giacomo Sardelli on Vimeo.

  • On Thursday, the San Diego County Water Authority signed a contract to buy the Western Hemisphere’s largest seawater desalination plant. Construction is slated to begin in Carlsbad early next year.

  • Meanwhile, farther north, a trio of strong rainstorms has drenched Northern California in recent days, leaving much of the region powerless. Studies indicate that the area could be due for a much bigger flooding event, reminiscent of the megastorms that occurred in the early 1860s, Scientific American reports.

  • A new study from the journal Science suggests that people rely more on body cues than facial expressions to gauge how others really feel.

NOT SAFE FOR LUNCH

After spending 36 years unwrapped, this golden Twinkie has neither wrinked nor sagged.

Find more on our science page.

Jeremy Blackman, David Pelcyger and Hari Sreenivasan contributed to this report.