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An elephant swinging its tail

An elephant’s pendulum-like tail swings fast enough to create an airy barrier to biting insects. Credit: Marguerite Matherne and David Hu

Biophysics

Why an elephant’s tail is a feeble fly-swatter

Tails serve as effective non-lethal weapons against pests.

A mammal’s waving tail forms a curtain of air that can discourage most mosquitoes from landing — and blows the pests away.

Tail-wagging in mammals such as elephants has long been thought to ward off biting insects, but the behaviour has received little attention from scientists. David Hu and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta recorded tail swinging in zebras, giraffes, elephants, horses and dogs. The team calculated that although the animals’ tails wagged rapidly, they could strike only one insect every 90 seconds.

Noticing that wind from a swishing tail spurred mosquitoes to take off, the researchers designed a cylinder that included a fan. After mosquitoes were released into the container, the fan's blades spun at the frequency of a specific mammal’s tail swings.

For the tail-swing rate of a wide range of species, the fan generated gusts of air whose speed closely matched that of flying mosquitoes, the authors report. They estimated that the breeze could block 50% of mosquitoes from landing — and those insects that did slip through could be swatted with the mammal’s tail.

More Research Highlights...

Pulsar wind nebula illustration

Curving purple lines in this artist’s impression represent the magnetic field of a neutron star (white sphere) left over from a brilliant supernova. Credit: Salvatore Orlando/INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo

Astronomy and astrophysics

X-rays expose a clue to the mystery of the missing neutron star

Astronomers might have spotted the long-sought debris of a famous stellar explosion.
A bone fragment next to a dime

A bone fragment excavated in Southeast Alaska belonged to one of the earliest known domestic dogs in the Americas. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Genomics

An ancient Alaskan dog’s DNA hints at an epic shared journey

To scientists’ surprise, a 10,000-year-old bone found in an Alaskan cave belonged to a domestic dog — one of the earliest known from the Americas.
Emissions billow from smokestacks at a coal-fired power plant as the sun sets, India.

Black carbon emitted by power plants and other sources in Asia wafts to the Arctic, where the pollution accelerates the melting of ice and snow. Credit: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg/Getty

Atmospheric science

Soot from Asia travels express on a highway to the high Arctic

Black carbon from fuel combustion in South Asia bolsters the effects of climate change on northern ice and snow.
Prevotella copri bacteria, computer illustration

The gut bacterium Prevotella copri (artist’s impression) has been linked to a reduction in the health benefits of a diet that skimps on red meat in favour of fish and vegetables. Credit: Kateryna Kon/Science Photo Library

Microbiology

Trying a Mediterranean diet? Gut microbes might sway the outcome

The composition of a person’s microbiome could influence the health effects of swapping steak for vegetables and olive oil.
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