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If Mayor Bloomberg's wildest decay-related fantasies are realized, New Yorkers will soon be sparing their food scraps from the garbage. A new composting program would encourage (or possibly require) people in the city to collect their food waste in a separate container. Yet Bloomberg may want to consider whether a Manhattan apartment has the square footage to fit both its residents and their potentially harmful compost fungi.
The New York City recycling plan, as described in the New York Tim........ Read more »
De Gannes, V., Eudoxie, G., & Hickey, W. (2013) Insights into fungal communities in composts revealed by 454-pyrosequencing: implications for human health and safety. Frontiers in Microbiology. DOI: 10.3389/fmicb.2013.00164
If you are a human reader, you've probably never seen your lunch put up an invisibility shield and perform an evasive maneuver just as you reached for it. But spare a thought for the bats. If your peanut-butter sandwich were anything like a tiger moth, you'd have a hard time finding a meal.
Several kinds of insects are able to detect the echolocation calls of a bat that's approaching like an enemy submarine. Moths may fly in another direction if they hear a bat nearby, or even drop into an e........ Read more »
Corcoran, A., Wagner, R., & Conner, W. (2013) Optimal Predator Risk Assessment by the Sonar-Jamming Arctiine Moth Bertholdia trigona. PLoS ONE, 8(5). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063609
It's 2013, and laboratory pigeons are demanding an upgrade. Well, maybe they aren't demanding so much as continuing to do whatever tasks get them their pigeon pellets. Nevertheless, switching from analog to digital testing could mean more rigorous studies, better statistics, and a chance for previously ignored animals to try their paws at cognition research.
One of the classic cognitive tests that psychologists like to give animals involves two or more strings. At the far end of one string, ........ Read more »
Wasserman, E., Nagasaka, Y., Castro, L., & Brzykcy, S. (2013) Pigeons learn virtual patterned-string problems in a computerized touch screen environment. Animal Cognition. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0608-0
Take a look at these neurons. Ignore the fact that several of the brain cells look like snowflakes and at least one looks like an avocado. Can you pick out the drawings done by experienced, professional neuroscientists? What about the ones made by undergraduate science students?
Researchers at King's College London gave a simple task to 232 people: "Draw a neuron." (Actually, being British, they said "Please draw a neuron.") Some of the subjects were undergraduates in a neurobiology lecture......... Read more »
HAY, D., WILLIAMS, D., STAHL, D., & WINGATE, R. (2013) Using Drawings of the Brain Cell to Exhibit Expertise in Neuroscience: Exploring the Boundaries of Experimental Culture. Science Education, 97(3), 468-491. DOI: 10.1002/sce.21055
At a McDonald's shareholder meeting last week, a nine-year-old girl accused CEO Don Thompson of sneaky advertising. Stop "tricking kids into eating your food," she demanded, saying that McDonald's ads tell kids to "keep bugging their parents" until they get that Happy Meal. In the world of fast-food chains, though, the golden arches may not be the sneakiest purveyor of excess calories. Diners in all kinds of fast-food restaurants underestimate the calories they're taking in—and the most dra........ Read more »
Block, J., Condon, S., Kleinman, K., Mullen, J., Linakis, S., Rifas-Shiman, S., & Gillman, M. (2013) Consumers' estimation of calorie content at fast food restaurants: cross sectional observational study. BMJ, 346(may23 3). DOI: 10.1136/bmj.f2907
It's hard to keep your footing in a steep tunnel made of loose dirt while others are scrambling around and over your body. Harder still in pitch blackness. That's why fire ants build tunnels that will catch them when they fall—a strategy human engineers might want to steal.
"Slips and missteps are likely a constant, recurring feature of life underground," says Nick Gravish, a graduate student in Daniel Goldman's rheology and biomechanics lab at Georgia Tech. Yet ants have to traverse their........ Read more »
Gravish, N., Monaenkova, D., Goodisman, M., & Goldman, D. (2013) Climbing, falling, and jamming during ant locomotion in confined environments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1302428110
It’s time to stop scoffing at the synesthetes: linking music to colors is totally normal. It’s not really about the notes, though. Researchers say the colors we find in music are actually the colors of the emotions the music makes us feel.
Synesthetes are people whose sensory experiences overlap; they most often link letters or numbers to certain colors. Music-color synesthesia, in which hearing music triggers the colors, is rarer. In fact, when Stephen Palmer and Karen Schloss at the........ Read more »
"Simple" is often a compliment in the human world, used to describe low-fuss dinners or closet solutions. When scientists use "simple" to describe an animal, they mean something more like, "That sac of goo has no business acting clever." An especially simple creature—a sea slug—recently demonstrated that despite its humble resources, it can learn from experience and form new hunting strategies. Smaller goo sacs, beware.
Despite its squishy stature, the sea slug Pleurobranchaea calif........ Read more »
Noboa, V., & Gillette, R. (2013) Selective prey avoidance learning in the predatory sea-slug Pleurobranchaea californica. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.079384
All it takes is an antenna on a headband. If you've got a breathless video report on the dangers of wireless internet connections, that will help your case. It doesn't take much, though, to turn an ominous hint into a real headache.
Some people consider themselves sensitive to electromagnetic fields. They report symptoms such as burning skin, tingling, nausea, dizziness, or chest pain, and they blame their malaise on nearby power lines, cell phones, or WiFi networks. A recent Slate arti........ Read more »
Witthöft, M., & Rubin, G. (2013) Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling? An experimental study on idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF). Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 74(3), 206-212. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2012.12.002
If cartoonists ever pause in their sketching to ponder human evolution, they must feel grateful to the forces that shaped our fear expression. All it takes is a pair of extra-wide eyes to show that a character is freaking out. There may be a point to this expression beyond making artists' lives easier: widening our eyes expands our peripheral vision, and might even help other people spot the cause of our alarm.
"Our lab is interested in the evolutionary origins of emotional expressions," say........ Read more »
Lee, D., Susskind, J., & Anderson, A. (2013) Social Transmission of the Sensory Benefits of Eye Widening in Fear Expressions. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464500
While male birds are singing elaborate arias and flashing their feathers, it's easy to imagine their female counterparts are unimportant actors. Duller and quieter, all a lady bird has to do is hold still and let one of these frantic performers mate with her. Yet in brown-headed cowbirds, at least, the quiet female keeps the whole society in order. Scientists discovered this by targeting a tiny portion of the female brain and frying it.
Males of the species Molothrus ater use the........ Read more »
Maguire, S., Schmidt, M., & White, D. (2013) Social Brains in Context: Lesions Targeted to the Song Control System in Female Cowbirds Affect Their Social Network. PLoS ONE, 8(5). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063239
We can knit sweaters for oiled penguins, but it's harder to protect whales and dolphins from the harm of having us as neighbors. Loud underwater sounds from activities like sonar and drilling may damage these animals' hearing and even lead to mass strandings. Though we can't chase cetaceans around with homemade earmuffs, we might be able to teach them to tune us out.
Like squinting or letting one's pupil shrink in bright light, some animals can adjust how sensitive their ears are. When we're........ Read more »
Nachtigall, P., & Supin, A. (2013) A false killer whale reduces its hearing sensitivity when a loud sound is preceded by a warning. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.085068
The Shambulance is an occasional series in which I try to find the truth about bogus or overhyped health products. Helping me keep the Shambulance on course are Steven Swoap and Daniel Lynch, both biology professors at Williams College.
Sticking a Q-tip up one’s nose is not the source of many great insights. Yet it’s how an American doctor in the early 20th century developed the theory that became modern reflexology. He would be proud—though maybe a little confused—to see people to........ Read more »
Ernst, E., Posadzki, P., & Lee, M. (2011) Reflexology: An update of a systematic review of randomised clinical trials. Maturitas, 68(2), 116-120. DOI: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2010.10.011
She's apparently a picky mater but not a picky eater. The female of a certain fly species, after mating with a male, dumps his ejaculate back out of her body and onto the ground. Then she gobbles it up. Despite new hints that this behavior may help the female choose which partner fertilizes her eggs, or keep her healthy in times of famine, scientists are still a little perplexed by it.
Various female insects, spiders, and birds are known to expel the male ejaculate from their bodies after t........ Read more »
Rodriguez-Enriquez, C., Tadeo, E., & Rull, J. (2013) Elucidating the function of ejaculate expulsion and consumption after copulation by female Euxesta bilimeki. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. DOI: 10.1007/s00265-013-1518-5
Shakespeare wasn't kidding about the "winter of our discontent." In the colder and darker months, people do more internet searches for mental health terms, from anxiety and ADHD all the way to suicide. Search patterns also promise that like a refreshed browser window, better times are due to arrive soon.
John Ayers, of the Center for Behavioral Epidemiology and Community Health in San Diego, and other researchers dove into Google Trends to explore whether certain searches vary by season. "Se........ Read more »
Ayers, J., Althouse, B., Allem, J., Rosenquist, J., & Ford, D. (2013) Seasonality in Seeking Mental Health Information on Google. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 44(5), 520-525. DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2013.01.012
A young homing pigeon must learn quickly how to find its way home from the strange neighborhoods where humans insist on leaving it. At first the bird does this by relying on its crudest instincts, returning to its roost along a route full of youthful zigzags. Over time, though, it refines its methods. A mature pigeon takes a much simpler route, because it has drawn itself a more complex map.
Homing pigeons have been subjected to all kinds of research. The latest study used GPS devices, whic........ Read more »
Schiffner, I., & Wiltschko, R. (2013) Development of the navigational system in homing pigeons: increase in complexity of the navigational map. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.085662
Close your eyes. Do you know where all your fingers and toes are? Can you pinpoint the exact edges of your body in space?
You may think your knowledge of your body is unshakeable, but a simple trick with a rubber limb can sway you. In kids, the effect is even more extreme—a finding that gives intriguing hints about how our body sense develops.
The new research relies on the "rubber hand illusion," first published in 1998. To produce this illusion, an experimenter sits across a table from........ Read more »
Cowie, D., Makin, T., & Bremner, A. (2013) Children's Responses to the Rubber-Hand Illusion Reveal Dissociable Pathways in Body Representation. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612462902
At nightfall, the Hawaiian bobtail squid digs itself out of the sand and rises into the ocean water like a spaceship taking off. It switches on its cloaking device: glowing bacteria inside its body light up, disguising the squid's silhouette against the moonlight for any predators swimming below. As sleek a vehicle as it appears, though, the bobtail may not totally outrank its microscopic crewmembers. The bacteria seem to power a clock inside the squid's body that can't function without them........ Read more »
Heath-Heckman, E., Peyer, S., Whistler, C., Apicella, M., Goldman, W., & McFall-Ngai, M. (2013) Bacterial Bioluminescence Regulates Expression of a Host Cryptochrome Gene in the Squid-Vibrio Symbiosis. mBio, 4(2). DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00167-13
Christmas arrived early this year for people who love animals carrying transmitters around. A new open-access journal called Animal Biotelemetry launched this week, and it promises to bring new tales of mind-blowing bird migrations and seals that study climate change (without exactly having volunteered for the job). Also, sharks.
Published by BioMed Central, the journal will include all kinds of research having to do with biological data gathered by instruments attached to animals. Thi........ Read more »
Maybe it's no mistake that we talk about "grasping" new ideas. When we find our hands moving wildly as we try to explain something, maybe we shouldn't feel ridiculous. Research in math classrooms has found that kids learned better when a teacher used gestures—and their grip on the new material improved even more after the lesson ended.
Teachers who gesture more or less while they speak can have other differences too, of course: they might use different intonation or vocabulary, or have mor........ Read more »
Cook, S., Duffy, R., & Fenn, K. (2013) Consolidation and Transfer of Learning After Observing Hand Gesture. Child Development. DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12097
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