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Without plagues, earthquakes, and unhinged criminal masterminds, the residents of Gotham might never need to put up the bat signal. Real bats, of course, are less concerned with responding to emergencies than with eating bugs. But like Batman, they do just fine—if not better than ever—in recently devastated environments. Specifically, forests that have burned down.
For five weeks in the summer of 2002, a wildfire tore through national forests in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The McNally F........ Read more »
Buchalski, M., Fontaine, J., Heady, P., Hayes, J., & Frick, W. (2013) Bat Response to Differing Fire Severity in Mixed-Conifer Forest California, USA. PLoS ONE, 8(3). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057884
There's more to a pair of rat noses than meets the eye. Like tiny, leashless dogs, rats like to sniff each other all over when they meet. Yet not all of this sniffing is aimed at gathering scents. Some of it seems to transmit messages such as "I'm in charge" or "Be cool" or "Please don't bite my face."
Rats and other animals give off odors from the "face, flanks, and anogenital region," says neuroscientist Daniel Wesson of Case Western Reserve University. So it's not surprising that these re........ Read more »
Humans and our lice are even closer travel companions than Kourtney and Kim when they took New York. The parasites cling to us more tightly than Paris Hilton's new BFF. They've been such cozy acquaintances of ours, in fact, that the story of human evolution is written into their genes.
That's what Marina Ascunce and other researchers at the University of Florida found when they sampled lice from around the world and compared their DNA. In the chromosomes of these wingless bloodsuckers, they........ Read more »
Ascunce, M., Toups, M., Kassu, G., Fane, J., Scholl, K., & Reed, D. (2013) Nuclear Genetic Diversity in Human Lice (Pediculus humanus) Reveals Continental Differences and High Inbreeding among Worldwide Populations. PLoS ONE, 8(2). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057619
The business end of a cuttlefish is no place a small crustacean wants to be. Cuttlefish are hunters who creep around in camouflage—virtually indistinguishable from a gray patch of gravel or a branching green seaweed—then lash out with their tentacles, turning a passing shrimp into shrimp toast. Oh, and they're colorblind. Despite this apparent handicap, though, learning to hunt doesn't take a lifetime. Baby cuttlefish figure it out almost as soon as they hatch.
"Newly hatched cuttlefish ........ Read more »
Cartron, L., Dickel, L., Shashar, N., & Darmaillacq, A. (2013) Maturation of polarization and luminance contrast sensitivities in cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis). Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.080390
Don't trust your kids. Like a miniature, juice-fueled army with subliminal messaging tactics, they can get inside your mind and make you do things. You won't realize what's happening until you step out of your low-flow shower one morning, turn the calendar page, and see a smug endangered trout looking back at you.
Though we usually think of education flowing down from parents and teachers to children, some people would prefer it to go upstream too. Environmental educators, for example, may h........ Read more »
Damerell, P., Howe, C., & Milner-Gulland, E. (2013) Child-orientated environmental education influences adult knowledge and household behaviour. Environmental Research Letters, 8(1), 15016. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/015016
Anyone who's walked a dog and seen it spring to attention when another dogs rounds a corner—even though that animal is still a full block away—may have wondered how exactly dogs recognize each other. What makes a golden retriever perk up its ears and wag its tail at an approaching greyhound but not, say, a stroller? Why does it ever occur to a dachshund to play with a pit bull in the park? Why don't average-sized dogs chase toy breeds away as if they were squirrels?
You might assume dogs........ Read more »
Autier-Dérian D, Deputte BL, Chalvet-Monfray K, Coulon M, & Mounier L. (2013) Visual discrimination of species in dogs (Canis familiaris). Animal cognition. PMID: 23404258
Finding just the right gift for a significant other sometimes means relying on hints; this is especially true if you are a bird and your significant other is also a bird. Even the cleverest corvids aren't great with wish lists. Male Eurasian jays, though, seem to be able to deduce which treats their mates want most.
Sharing food is an important courtship ritual for the Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius). Passing snacks to each other helps the birds form, and nourish, long-term relationships......... Read more »
Ostojic, L., Shaw, R., Cheke, L., & Clayton, N. (2013) Evidence suggesting that desire-state attribution may govern food sharing in Eurasian jays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1209926110
Getting older is not a recipe for crotchetiness. Although those two cranky Muppets will always be up in their balcony, Americans in general don't become less happy with age. If anything, they get happier.
The trajectory of people's happiness over a lifetime is tricky to study, because in a given year you're capturing not only your subject's age but also the current events. You need to follow a large group of people over many years, and you need them to be all different ages when the study st........ Read more »
Sutin, A., Terracciano, A., Milaneschi, Y., An, Y., Ferrucci, L., & Zonderman, A. (2013) The Effect of Birth Cohort on Well-Being: The Legacy of Economic Hard Times. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612459658
Pea aphids are even better at "stop, drop and roll" than elementary-schoolers. When a threatening ladybug or grazing deer approaches the stem where an aphid is sucking sap, it lets go and plummets toward the ground. By holding its limbs in just the right way, though, the insect can tumble into an upright position before sticking the landing.
The ground is a dangerous place for a small wingless animal, so it might help a falling pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum) to hit it running. Or, bet........ Read more »
Ribak, G., Gish, M., Weihs, D., & Inbar, M. (2013) Adaptive aerial righting during the escape dropping of wingless pea aphids. Current Biology, 23(3). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.12.010
This post originally appeared in August 2012. Inkfish will return to its regularly scheduled wacky animals next week.
The office of postmaster general to the United States used to come with a perk totally unrelated to mail. In the unlikely event that an accident wiped out the president, vice president, and every member of their cabinet, the postmaster general would become the leader of the country.
In reality, the line of succession has never gotten beyond the vice president. B........ Read more »
Alok Bang, & Raghavendra Gadagkar. (2012) Reproductive queue without overt conflict in the primitively eusocial wasp Ropalidia marginata. PNAS. info:/10.1073/pnas.1212698109
Most people with synesthesia can't tell you exactly why they perceive the letter M as purple and not orange, or a high C-sharp as bright yellow and not blue. For one group of synesthetes, though, there appears to be an answer. For their green D's, red G's, and so on, they can thank the toy company Fisher-Price.
Stanford researchers Nathan Witthoft and Jonathan Winawer discovered, through word of mouth and from synesthetes contacting them online, a group of people who share a "startlingly sim........ Read more »
The seafloor has no shortage of spiky wildlife or hairy mysteries. One such mystery is logistical: where do the animals that live around deep-sea vents and cold seeps come from?
On the black and generally barren bottom of the ocean, food is scarce. Hydrothermal vents and cold seeps—places where methane, sulfides and other chemical goodies leak out of the seafloor—are like desert oases. Whole communities of weird creatures that live on these chemicals rather than the sun cluster around t........ Read more »
Bienhold C, Pop Ristova P, Wenzhöfer F, Dittmar T, & Boetius A. (2013) How deep-sea wood falls sustain chemosynthetic life. PloS one, 8(1). PMID: 23301092
If you ask most heterosexual people what height they're looking for in a partner, they'll describe basically what a children's-book illustrator would draw: the man taller than the woman but not towering over her. But those of us who aren't pen-and-paper must settle for real human partners in human shapes and sizes. Nevertheless, new research says most people end up with a reality that matches the fantasy.
Researchers led by Gert Stulp of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands wondere........ Read more »
Stulp, G., Buunk, A., Pollet, T., Nettle, D., & Verhulst, S. (2013) Are Human Mating Preferences with Respect to Height Reflected in Actual Pairings?. PLoS ONE, 8(1). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054186
The humble king penguin chick had no way of knowing, when it woke up that day, that tall creatures from far away would come to send it on a journey. Nor could it know that its journey would become the subject of a manuscript read and studied by many. (It still doesn't know that part, because it's a bird.)
When the humans came, the penguin was in its crèche, a cluster of young birds left behind while their parents foraged. Other penguins young and old stretched away from it in........ Read more »
Nesterova, A., Chiffard, J., Couchoux, C., & Bonadonna, F. (2013) The invisible cues that guide king penguin chicks home. The use of magnetic and acoustic cues during orientation and short-range navigation. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.075564
In the Kenyan wilderness, hyenas facing a meat-stuffed puzzle box performed impressively—impressively badly, that is. Researchers expected the animals to be up to the challenge, but few of them ever got the box open. Now, repeating the experiment with captive hyenas, they've discovered that there's no contest: the captive animals are better problem solvers.
Out of 62 wild hyenas in last year's study, less than 15 percent ever managed to slide the latch and swing open the door of the b........ Read more »
Benson-Amram, S., Weldele, M., & Holekamp, K. (2012) A comparison of innovative problem-solving abilities between wild and captive spotted hyaenas, Crocuta crocuta. Animal Behaviour. DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.11.003
As kids, we discover that our two legs can manage many different gaits. After walking and running we figure out how to tiptoe, hop, and skip. (Personally, I decided at one point to become a better skipper than anyone I knew, practicing backward skipping and figure-eights in our driveway. I may have sensed that my competition in this pursuit was not very stiff.)
For basic getting around, we usually settle on walking and running. But why do we ignore so much of our bipedal repertoire in favor ........ Read more »
Fiers P, De Clercq D, Segers V, & Aerts P. (2012) Biomechanics of human bipedal gallop: asymmetry dictates leg functions. The Journal of experimental biology. PMID: 23239890
Peering into the past life of this fossil took an x-ray scanner powered by a particle accelerator. What scientists saw there was mysterious: an ancient lizard had left behind its skin and teeth, but none of its bones. To tell the ghost's tale, they relied on some very modern equipment.
At Stanford University, an accelerator called a synchrotron sends electrons zipping around a track fast enough that x-rays spin off of them. These x-rays are collected into an extremely bright x-ray beam that........ Read more »
Space travel for regular folks is almost here. But before jumping on board the nearest spacecraft, amateur astronauts and their doctors might want to consider the health risks. Although standard air travel is more boring than spaceflight, it's also less likely to shrink your bones or deform your eyeballs.
"Practically only the healthiest people have flown in space so far," says Marlene Grenon, a vascular surgeon at UCSF who researches the effects of microgravity on the body. Government astro........ Read more »
Grenon, S., Saary, J., Gray, G., Vanderploeg, J., & Hughes-Fulford, M. (2012) Can I take a space flight? Considerations for doctors. BMJ, 345(dec13 8). DOI: 10.1136/bmj.e8124
Think mosquitos have a special fondness for you? Do they choose to target you over adjacent humans? No matter how badly you have it, things might be worse if you were infected with malaria. New research in birds shows that malaria parasites somehow make their victims more attractive to mosquitos. After all, the parasite needs a lift to its next destination—so it forces its sick host to flag down a ride.
Malaria, one of the top killers worldwide among infectious diseases, isn't caused by a ........ Read more »
Cornet, S., Nicot, A., Rivero, A., & Gandon, S. (2012) Malaria infection increases bird attractiveness to uninfected mosquitoes. Ecology Letters. DOI: 10.1111/ele.12041
Covering yourself with garbage is a great way to look less delicious to predators. More than a hundred million years ago, one insect species took this strategy to the extreme by growing a kind of giant trash can on its back. Scientists could identify the new species thanks to a remarkable specimen that was preserved—along with an informative topping of trash—in amber.
The insect that kindly died in a blob of tree resin in early-Cretaceous Spain was a young green lacewing. Modern-day gree........ Read more »
Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Xavier Delclòs, Enrique Peñalver, Mariela Speranza, Jacek Wierzchos, Carmen Ascaso, & Michael S. Engel. (2012) Early evolution and ecology of camouﬂage in insects. PNAS. info:/10.1073/pnas.1213775110
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