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Creature Feature: Jumping Fleas, Burrowing Owls
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Creature Feature: Jumping Fleas, Burrowing Owls

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Creature Feature: Jumping Fleas, Burrowing Owls

Creature Feature: Jumping Fleas, Burrowing Owls
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Science Friday's video pick is a double feature. Scientists in the U.K. used high-speed photography to reveal how fleas leap. Mac Stone, wildlife photographer and field biologist, stuffed a camera in a traffic cone and got some beauty shots of burrowing owls in south Florida.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, Flora Lichtman is here for our Video Pick of the Week. Welcome, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: What have we got this week?

LICHTMAN: This week, we've got something really special on tap. We have a double creature feature, the best kind of double feature, if you ask me.

FLATOW: Of course, a double creature feature.

LICHTMAN: So the first one has to do with a mystery that's bugged researchers for decades, longer than that. I mean, it's about the flea and how the flea jumps. What's to know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: The flea jumps. What's the big mystery?

LICHTMAN: Apparently, the big mystery in the scientific community, this is what keeps people like Greg Sutton and Malcolm Burrows up at night, was whether fleas jump off their knees - or it's not really like our knees. They have more joints in their legs - but the knee structure for the flea or the feet.

FLATOW: Do they jump with their feet or with their knees?

LICHTMAN: How do they - and, you know, fleas are...

FLATOW: It keeps people up at night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: You know, engineers are weird birds. But it turns out that if you watch them with high-speed video cameras, like - high-speed cameras like these researchers did, you can find out exactly how they jump, and, you know, amazing - which you can see on our website. You can see fleas jumping in slow motion.

FLATOW: Up there, that's our Video Pick of the Week this week, up on the left corner.

LICHTMAN: It's one of them, yes.

FLATOW: One of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Double creature feature, right?

LICHTMAN: Double creature feature. So this is the first one. It's this mystery of how fleas jump, and it's really worth a look because they're fleas like you've never seen them before.

And really, the amazing thing is just how fast they accelerate. Fleas accelerate at 100 G's, that's G-force from, you know, the gravitational force. The space shuttle: three G's.

FLATOW: space shuttle, three G's; fleas, 100 G's. That's 100 times its weight of acceleration.

LICHTMAN: It's incredible.

FLATOW: And why doesn't it fall apart?

LICHTMAN: This - apparently if you dissect a flea, you find that their internal organs are packed in such a way that they don't slosh around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: So, like, they've actually - you know, they're put together...

FLATOW: I hate it when that happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: They're put together so all their organs are strapped in, just like you would be on the space shuttle.

FLATOW: Wow, and on the video that you've made, we can actually see in super-slow motion.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: And you've got to compare. I think it's quite interesting, to get an idea how they fast they do it, you have it compared running at the same rate as the blink of an eye.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I mean, the blink looks like you're falling asleep, like you have really drowsy eyelids. It's pretty amazing how quickly these guys are moving.

FLATOW: All right, that was the first creature.

LICHTMAN: That's the first creature feature, and that was high-speed photography. And the second creature feature is sort of the opposite. It's time lapse. And it was put together by Mac Stone, who we actually have on the line. So he can tell you more about it.

Mac Stone is a wildlife photographer and field biologist for the National Audubon Society in Tavernier, Florida. Hi, Mac.

Mr. MAC STONE (Wildlife Photographer, Field Biologist, National Audubon Society): Hey, Flora. Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

LICHTMAN: Mac, tell us a little - you tell us a little bit about your awesome video.

Mr. STONE: Well, the time-lapse video was a project that actually lasted six months. It took a lot longer than I anticipated. And the whole project came about from just wanting to take a unique perspective image of these burrowing owls that I found out in Homestead, Florida.

LICHTMAN: And what are burrowing owls?

Mr. STONE: Burrowing owls are these diurnal birds. They're - they stand about eight inches tall. They are these very cartoon-looking creatures with these big, bright, yellow eyes. And they have their burrows in the ground.

So instead of nesting in trees, they nest underground, and a lot of times, they'll excavate their own, or they will take over prairie dogs' burrows or gopher tortoise burrows.

LICHTMAN: And so how did you capture them because the footage on our website, the video that you put together, I mean, they're really up close. You can see those big, cartoony eyes. You can look them right in the eyes. It's pretty amazing. But how did you get them?

Mr. STONE: Yeah, so most of the time when these owls are photographed, photographers will use long lenses. And I really wanted to change it up a little bit.

So I used a wide-angle lens. But I ran into so many problems doing this because in using a wide-angle lens, you have to be very close. So fortunately, what I found out after a lot of trial and error, was that these owls had become used to road cones sitting next to their burrows.

LICHTMAN: You mean those big orange things, those big cones?

Mr. STONE: Yes, very alien-looking road cones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: They're actually more accustomed to seeing those than they were people. So they use road cones to make the burrows for when the landscaping company would come through, that they wouldn't mow over the burrows because they're protected birds.

So what I did was just cut a hole into the road cone and placed my camera on the inside of it, and the owls were none the wiser.

LICHTMAN: So, but how did you get them to look at the camera? Because you have all these shots of the owls looking straight at the camera.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, well, that was a lesson learned, and it actually took a little while to figure this one out. I kept getting images, you know, hundreds and thousands of images where they weren't looking at the camera. And eventually, I rigged my camera to beep just before it would take the photo.

So as soon as the photo would take, it would just send out a little beep, and then the owls would turn their heads, looking at it, to make sure that they were, in fact, looking my direction.

LICHTMAN: That's really clever.

FLATOW: So instead of smile, look at the birdie, it's birdie, smile, look at me.

Mr. STONE: Exactly. Exactly. If I couldn't be there to tell them to smile and make little funny faces at them, at least I could get the camera to do it.

LICHTMAN: Mac, one quick last question. What's your next project that we can look forward to, I hope?

Mr. STONE: Well, right now, I'm actually working on two projects right now. I'm working on - I'm working with the National Audubon Society here in Tavernier, and we're working on a grant with Disney covering spoonbills, roseate spoonbills, as ecological indicators for the health of the Everglades.

So we are putting together videos and still imagery and to do an interactive website about the Florida Bay and the Southern Everglades. So that will -should be coming about here in the next couple of weeks. And then, hopefully, if I can find a nice little perch or a nice place to put my camera so it won't get wet, I'm going to try out a crocodile cam, similar to that of the burrowing owls cam.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Ooh, I can't wait for that. Mac, thanks for coming on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. STONE: Thank you so much for having me.

LICHTMAN: Mac Stone is a wildlife photographer and field biologist for the National Audubon Society.

FLATOW: And if you want to see Flora's Video Pick of the Week, go to our website at sciencefriday.com and click on the photo there, the video on the left.

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