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Like the clever and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into all areas of science and brings you interpretations of the newest stories.

Elizabeth Preston
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  • December 13, 2011
  • 02:36 PM

Lessons from Kobe on Life's 3-Pointers

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

You might expect NBA players to know when and where to take their shots. They get paid millions of dollars a year to work out, avoid hitting their heads on door frames, and put the ball in the basket. Yet even years of training can't overcome a basic human superstition about our own behaviors: We believe that whatever just happened is about to happen again. If we stopped trusting in streakiness, we might all score more points.

Tal Neiman and Yonatan Lowenstein, researchers in Israel with........ Read more »

  • December 16, 2011
  • 01:17 PM

Aesop's Crows Understand Physics, Literature

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Aesop told the fable of a thirsty crow that came upon a nearly empty pitcher of water and discovered that by dropping pebbles in, he could raise the water to a drinkable level. The moral is "Little by little does the trick"--or was that "Necessity is the mother of invention"? Either way, scientists have enjoyed testing non-fictional members of the clever corvid family with this puzzle. Most recently, wild crows showed scientists they're smart enough for a whole barr........ Read more »

  • January 13, 2012
  • 12:13 PM

How to Decode a Monkey Face

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Look closely: The black-capped squirrel monkey is trying to tell you something. No, staring deep into its eyes won't help. Actually, forget looking closely. Maybe squint.

This South American monkey's face is a patchwork of coloration: dark on the crown, cheekbones, and mouth; gray on the sides of the face; white on the ears, chin, and around the eyes. The pattern holds a hint to how the species lives in the wild. The length of its hair is a clue about where it lives--and so's........ Read more »

Santana, S., Lynch Alfaro, J., & Alfaro, M. (2012) Adaptive evolution of facial colour patterns in Neotropical primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2326  

  • December 20, 2011
  • 05:14 PM

For Genitalia, Shape Matters (Not Size)

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

When it comes to a dung beetle's junk, size doesn't matter. At least, not to the process of rapid evolution that creates new species. Researchers say that what matters there, as males and females evolve together and distinguish themselves from related species, is shape.

Intercourse between Onthophagus beetles--the genus used in the current study, which includes the dung beetle O. taurus as well as other scarab beetles--is far from simple. It begins with the male climbing onto the f........ Read more »

  • September 2, 2011
  • 05:42 PM

Are Your Gut Bacteria Vegetarian?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

This spring, scientists announced that each person seems to have a signature set of gut bacteria, like a blood type for the microbiome. Their human subjects fell into three separate "enterotypes," each one representing a distinct microbial ecosystem. The enterotypes didn't correlate with subjects' age, gender, or nationality. But a new study has found something that does predict what enterotype you'll host: eating a plant- or animal-based diet.

Researchers surveyed 98 subjects about their diets........ Read more »

Wu, G., Chen, J., Hoffmann, C., Bittinger, K., Chen, Y., Keilbaugh, S., Bewtra, M., Knights, D., Walters, W., Knight, R.... (2011) Linking Long-Term Dietary Patterns with Gut Microbial Enterotypes. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1208344  

  • July 2, 2012
  • 12:00 PM

Flightless Giant's Flower Diet Revealed by Poop Fossils

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

If Big Bird had ever invited his weird armless cousin from Down Under to visit Sesame Street, American kids would have met the moa. These flightless birds lived in New Zealand until hungry humans arrived; the last moa species predictably went extinct around 1500. Thanks to fossilized droppings, though, scientists are learning how the hapless giants lived, what they ate, and what holes they left in the ecosystem by vanishing.

Here are some fossil turds. In polite company, you can refer to the........ Read more »

Jamie R. Wood, Janet M. Wilmshurst, Steven J. Wagstaff, Trevor H. Worthy, Nicolas J. Rawlence, & Alan Cooper. (2012) High-Resolution Coproecology: Using Coprolites to Reconstruct the Habits and Habitats of New Zealand’s Extinct Upland Moa (Megalapteryx didinus). PLoS ONE. info:/10.1371/journal.pone.0040025

  • November 25, 2011
  • 02:36 PM

Bacteria You'll Meet in a Public Restroom

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Whether you're intentionally starting your Christmas shopping or you unwittingly get swept into Macy's by a tide of deal-seekers, you may eventually have to face a public restroom. You'll be sharing it not just with your fellow shoppers, but with a whole mess of bacteria species. Luckily, researchers in Colorado have done some digging into that mess so that you can know just who you'll meet behind the "Ladies" or "Gentlemen" sign.

Public restrooms are a great place to find bacteria, as the auth........ Read more »

Flores, G., Bates, S., Knights, D., Lauber, C., Stombaugh, J., Knight, R., & Fierer, N. (2011) Microbial Biogeography of Public Restroom Surfaces. PLoS ONE, 6(11). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028132  

  • April 27, 2012
  • 12:35 PM

Baby Corn Plants Recruit Helpful Bacteria Posse

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

When you're a newly sprouted corn seedling, all alone in the dirt, you need any advantage you can get. After all, you can't pick up your roots and travel to find resources or avoid pests. That's why corn plants emit toxic chemicals that keep away hungry insects aboveground and harmful microbes below. But to at least one kind of bacteria, this poison is more of a beacon. They follow the toxic trail back to the corn plant, set up camp in its roots, and help the vulnerable seedling grow.

A plan........ Read more »

  • June 23, 2011
  • 11:02 AM

The Stink Wars

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

It's not just skunks. Several other scrappy, medium-sized mammals can spray you with bad-smelling liquids from their anal glands. But they're not keeping it a secret: These animals have evolved certain signals that warn you and other potential predators to stay away (especially from the back end). If you know the signs, you can make sure to keep on the good side of any furry creatures you meet.Striped skunk.Providing more fodder for the theory that people are drawn to subjects resembling th........ Read more »

  • August 31, 2011
  • 03:47 PM

Marsupials Make the Best Medicine

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

We're waging an increasingly desperate war on drug-resistant bacteria. Thanks to their adaptability--and our own fondness for strewing antibiotics everywhere, like inept military commanders who let the enemy borrow and examine our only weapons before we attack--the bugs are gaining ground. Previously life-saving drugs are now useless, and previously beatable infections now have strains that seem immortal.To find new antibiotics that can help us, why not turn to animals that are still doing a goo........ Read more »

  • September 7, 2012
  • 01:24 PM

Deep-Sea Census Finds Glow-in-the-Dark Bonanza

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Sometimes the best way to answer a question like "How many animals on the bottom of the ocean glow?" is to just go down there and poke some sea creatures with a robot arm. That's how researchers found out that the pitch-black seafloor in the Bahamas is alive with bioluminescence. They also found glowing currents full of plankton, a crustacean with the world's slowest vision, and creatures that vomit light when provoked.

In the middle depths of the ocean, making your own light is ordinary. Ar........ Read more »

  • August 23, 2012
  • 11:26 AM

The Shambulance: Zero-Calorie Noodles?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

(The Shambulance is an occasional series in which I try to find the truth about overhyped health products. My Shambulance co-captains this week are Steven Swoap and Daniel Lynch, both of Williams College.)

It could almost be a Zen question: What do you call a food with no food in it? In Japan they're called shirataki noodles, and are made from the root of the konjac plant. In the United States they're called "Miracle Noodles" or a "healthier alternative to pasta" and promise "NO calories......... Read more »

  • July 6, 2011
  • 04:17 PM

To Visualize Dinosaurs, Scientists Try Paint-by-Numbers

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Now that we know some dinosaurs had down or feathers instead of the scales we used to imagine, there are intriguing new questions to be answered. Did forest-dwelling species use patterned feathers for camouflage? Did other dinosaurs use flashy colors for communication or courtship, like modern birds do? Using new imaging techniques, scientists are beginning to color in their dinosaur outlines. In previous studies, researchers have scoured fossils of dinosaurs and early birds for melanosomes........ Read more »

Wogelius, R., Manning, P., Barden, H., Edwards, N., Webb, S., Sellers, W., Taylor, K., Larson, P., Dodson, P., You, H.... (2011) Trace Metals as Biomarkers for Eumelanin Pigment in the Fossil Record. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1205748  

  • May 18, 2012
  • 11:55 AM

The Secret to Success Is Giant-Jawed Snake Babies

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

When coming face-to-face with a wriggling, freshly born pile of poisonous snakes, most of us wouldn't linger for a close look. But it was by looking into these living linguini platters that one biologist found a new answer to an old question: Why does island life make animals such freak shows?

Some big-bodied species shrink when they move from the mainland to an island habitat, a phenomenon that's created pygmy sloths, miniature mammoths, and possibly even a dwarf hominid that's now extinct......... Read more »

Fabien Aubret. (2012) Body-Size Evolution on Islands: Are Adult Size Variations in Tiger Snakes a Nonadaptive Consequence of Selection on Birth Size?. The American Naturalist, 169(6). info:/

  • July 1, 2011
  • 04:12 PM

To Live Longer, Be a Happy Ape

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Orangutans that achieve their goals, enjoy swinging with others, and always look on the bright side of the banana have longer lifespans than those who merely mope around the zoo. That's the conclusion of a long-term study of over 180 captive orangutans. The unhappy apes died sooner, and the happy apes lived to gloat about it.Alexander Weiss at the University of Edinburgh and his colleagues collected data on captive orangutans in parks around the world. At the beginning of the study period, ........ Read more »

Weiss, A., Adams, M., & King, J. (2011) Happy orang-utans live longer lives. Biology Letters. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0543  

  • November 4, 2011
  • 05:29 PM

Which Ancient Megafauna Did We Wipe Out?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

If things had turned out differently in past millennia, modern-day animal lovers wouldn't have to fly to Kenya to go on safari. North America was once overrun with tourism-worthy animals: Aside from the iconic woolly mammoth, there were saber-toothed cats, giant sloths, and short-faced bears more than twice as massive as a grizzly. We're still not sure what happened to them, but a new study in Nature attempts to untangle the whodunnit.

Since dozens of these "megafauna" species disappeared fr........ Read more »

Lorenzen, E., Nogués-Bravo, D., Orlando, L., Weinstock, J., Binladen, J., Marske, K., Ugan, A., Borregaard, M., Gilbert, M., Nielsen, R.... (2011) Species-specific responses of Late Quaternary megafauna to climate and humans. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature10574  

  • August 8, 2011
  • 11:22 AM

To Dyslexics, English Sounds like a Foreign Language

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

How well can you identify other people's voices? Most of us are good at recognizing a familiar speaker we can't see. This skill works best, though, in our native tongue. And to the ears of a dyslexic person, everyone else may as well be speaking Chinese.Dyslexia is usually described as a reading disorder. In school, a dyslexic kid will struggle to recognize words and parse sentences. She (or more often, according to some studies, he) might have assignments read aloud or receive prewritten class ........ Read more »

Perrachione, T., Del Tufo, S., & Gabrieli, J. (2011) Human Voice Recognition Depends on Language Ability. Science, 333(6042), 595-595. DOI: 10.1126/science.1207327  

  • August 19, 2011
  • 04:03 PM

Nesting-Doll Bugs Make a Complete Set

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Describing what might make the worst gift ever, researchers John McCutcheon and Carol von Dohlen report that they've found a system of symbionts resembling Russian nesting dolls. A tiny bacterium lives inside a slightly less tiny bacterium, which lives inside a mealybug. Unlike a nicely painted set of wooden dolls, though, each complete on its own, the matryoshka mealybug and its many inhabitants can't live without each other.The citrus mealybug, Planococcus citri, is a a sap-sucking plant pest ........ Read more »

  • July 12, 2011
  • 12:52 PM

Is Bo Obama a Fraud?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

A hypoallergenic dog, we're told, is one that politely keeps its dander to itself and makes the air safer for allergy sufferers to breathe. Yet a new study claims to have debunked the whole notion of the allergy-friendly dog. Is this fair?Researchers from the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit studied a group of 173 homes that had both a baby and exactly one dog. After surveying each dog's owners about its breed, size, and how much time the dog spent indoors, the researchers collected a sample ........ Read more »

Charlotte E. Nicholas, M.P.H., Ganesa R. Wegienka, Ph.D., Suzanne L. Havstad, M.A., Edward M. Zoratti, M.D., Dennis R. Ownby, M.D., & Christine Cole Johson, Ph.D. (2011) Dog allergen levels in homes with hypoallergenic compared with nonhypoallergenic dogs. American Journal of Rhinology . info:/

  • October 21, 2011
  • 05:23 PM

Are Women Really Less Funny than Men?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Did you hear the one about how men are the funnier sex? If not, you're alone. In a recent study of California undergrads, 89% of women and 94% of men not only were familiar with the stereotype, but agreed with it. To investigate whether this supposed humor discrepancy might be a fact, the study's authors set up a tournament of New Yorker cartoon captions.

In a format you'll recognize if you've ever been sucked into the New Yorker cartoon caption contest, 32 subjects were given a series of ........ Read more »

Laura Mickes, Drew E. Walker, Julian L. Parris, Robert Mankoff, & Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld. (2011) Who’s funny: Gender stereotypes, humor production, and memory bias. Psychonomic Bulletin . info:/

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