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Sometimes at the climax of a Star Trek episode, the captain would yell out "Battle stations!" and send the crew scurrying frantically through the corridors. It wasn't really clear what those battle stations were. Presumably, crew members headed to posts they'd been previously assigned, and this let the whole ship react to the crisis efficiently.
Certain ants respond to a crisis by binding their bodies together into floating rafts. And like the Star Trek crew, they seem to have designat........ Read more »
Avril, A., Purcell, J., & Chapuisat, M. (2016) Ant workers exhibit specialization and memory during raft formation. The Science of Nature, 103(5-6). DOI: 10.1007/s00114-016-1360-5
If you can't stand the heat, you're not an echidna, as the saying (almost) goes. These egg-laying mammals are unusual for several reasons. One of those reasons, it turns out, is that their ability to lower their body temperatures makes them largely indifferent to their homes burning down around them.
The short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus, is one of four living species of echidna. Like the platypus, echidnas are Australian mammals that lay eggs instead of bearing live young. The........ Read more »
A flying insect that's suddenly swallowed by a bat probably doesn't have a lot of time to reflect on its fate. If it did, though, it might wonder how on Earth the swooping mammal managed to grab it with so little warning. The answer is that bats don't hunt just one bug at a time. While scanning the air with echoes, they manage to plan two victims ahead.
Bats aren't blind, despite what you may have read on Twitter. But bats that hunt at night rely on sound, not vision. They send out very h... Read more »
Fujioka, E., Aihara, I., Sumiya, M., Aihara, K., & Hiryu, S. (2016) Echolocating bats use future-target information for optimal foraging. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201515091. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1515091113
If birds fretted about their biological clocks like humans do, it would be the dads of some species doing the worrying, not the moms. When male albatrosses have chicks later in life, those chicks grow up to fare worse. It's because albatrosses of both sexes are such good parents to begin with.
Wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) share parenting duties "quite equitably," explains Rémi Fay, a graduate student in biology at France's CNRS. The giant seabirds mate for life. Every other y........ Read more »
Fay, R., Barbraud, C., Delord, K., & Weimerskirch, H. (2016) Paternal but not maternal age influences early-life performance of offspring in a long-lived seabird. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 283(1828), 20152318. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2015.2318
"Who wants to generate some DATA??" are probably not words you've ever said while taking your dog's leash and tennis ball from the closet. But thanks to videos of people playing with their dogs, scientists now know what words you are likely to use. They also discovered how women's tussling and tug-of-war are different from men's—and what the professionals do better.
The scientists are Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht of Barnard College's Dog Cognition Lab. They asked members of the p........ Read more »
Horowitz A, & Hecht J. (2016) Examining dog-human play: the characteristics, affect, and vocalizations of a unique interspecific interaction. Animal cognition. PMID: 27003698
It may sound superficial, but you can judge a lot about an animal from its schnoz. Plant-eaters have evolved the perfect snout shapes to nibble, chomp, or tear up the foods they love. And by decoding those shapes, scientists hope they can learn more about plant-eaters that are more mysterious—namely, dinosaurs.
"When you see cows in a field, their faces almost look like they're glued to the ground as they nibble away," says Jon Tennant, a PhD student at Imperial College London. Cows are ........ Read more »
Antarctic seabirds called skuas are so clever that they can recognize individual humans after seeing them only a few times. Some Korean researchers discovered this by messing with the birds' nests and then waiting to get attacked. They're either very brave or have never watched The Birds.
The study took place on Antarctica's King George Island. The animals here didn't evolve around humans. People have only been making appearances on the island since the 1950s or so. Today 10 countr........ Read more »
Had Teresa Dzieweczynski chosen to publish her recent findings as an updated children's classic, rather than as a research paper, she could have titled it If You Give a Fish an Antidepressant. The book would probably be less charming than If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. But it would also be, unfortunately, more realistic. Our pharmaceuticals are steadily trickling into the homes of fish and other animals. And—as the hero of the original book could have told us, his house in disarray aft........ Read more »
Dzieweczynski, T., Campbell, B., & Kane, J. (2016) Dose-dependent fluoxetine effects on boldness in male Siamese fighting fish. Journal of Experimental Biology, 219(6), 797-804. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.132761
Just because a snake can't kill you doesn't mean it's slow on the draw. New research shows that harmless snakes strike just as quickly as venomous vipers do. The snakes hurl themselves at their targets so quickly, in fact, that a lesser animal would black out from the acceleration.
Vipers have long been the presumed titleholders for strike speed, explains David Penning, a graduate student in biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. These snakes strike to kill, plunging their v... Read more »
Penning, D., Sawvel, B., & Moon, B. (2016) Debunking the viper's strike: harmless snakes kill a common assumption. Biology Letters, 12(3), 20160011. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0011
Island living may call to mind vivid flowering vines and colorful plumage. But in reality, birds on islands around the world have evolved less-colorful feathers than their mainland relatives. Their drab, simple patterns are only the latest evidence that island evolution is kind of weird.
Claire Doutrelant, an ecologist at France's Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, and her coauthors studied 116 pairs of bird species, or 232 species in all. Each pair included an island bird and ... Read more »
No one likes a mouthful of sand. Even that single speck of grit that crunches in your molars after a day at the beach is maddening. It turns out non-human animals aren't fans of eating sand either. That's why certain plants use sticky hairs to coat themselves in layers of grit. For keeping hungry animals away, it works like a charm.
Eric LoPresti, a graduate student in ecology at the University of California, Davis, and his advisor Richard Karban have listed over 200 species of plants tha... Read more »
Eric F. LoPresti, & Richard Karban. (2016) Chewing sandpaper: grit, plant apparency and plant defense in sand-entrapping plants. Ecology. info:/10.1890/15-1696
"I've always wanted to have a neighbor just like you," Mister Rogers used to sing from millions of television sets while changing his shoes. But even if Fred Rogers wanted to be everyone's neighbor, most people are more selective. Whether they choose to hang out with each other may depend on their gender, race, political affiliation, or even favorite sports teams. A new study shows that these preferences start early: kids as young as 4 years old want to be friends with other kids who kn........ Read more »
Soley, G., & Spelke, E. (2016) Shared cultural knowledge: Effects of music on young children’s social preferences. Cognition, 106-116. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.09.017
The hero of The Martian, one of the films up for Best Picture at this weekend's Academy Awards, isn't unusual because he's a scientist—he's unusual because he's a plant scientist. Books and movies rarely even try to make botany seem cool. Yet Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is definitely meant to be cool. "I am the greatest botanist on this planet!" he declares after being abandoned on Mars.
Real plant scientists are thrilled to see a cool botanist on the big screen. Chris Martine........ Read more »
Martine, C., Frawley, E., Cantley, J., & Jordon-Thaden, I. (2016) Solanum watneyi, a new bush tomato species from the Northern Territory, Australia named for Mark Watney of the book and film “The Martian”. PhytoKeys, 1-13. DOI: 10.3897/phytokeys.61.6995
If you wanted to travel from Japan to California, you could do worse than to hitch a ride on a barnacle-covered buoy. Or maybe a barnacle-covered refrigerator or chunk of foam. Barnacles are turning all kinds of ocean trash into cozy habitats for animals at sea. They might even help some of those animals reach distant shores and become dangerous invasive species.
Flora and fauna have always sailed the sea on rafts such as pieces of wood or pumice, or matted plants. Without flotation devices, ........ Read more »
Gil, M., & Pfaller, J. (2016) Oceanic barnacles act as foundation species on plastic debris: implications for marine dispersal. Scientific Reports, 19987. DOI: 10.1038/srep19987
There's not much of a betting market for octopus fights. But if you wanted to wager on the outcome of a face-off between octopuses, you could get some insider information by looking at their colors.
Octopuses, like their relatives the squid and cuttlefish, are famously adept at changing the colors and patterns on their skin. Most of the time, researchers have interpreted octopus color-shifting as a way to hide, says Alaska Pacific University marine biologist David Scheel. By adjusting the... Read more »
Between the rise of 3D movies and virtual reality, more and more people are getting a chance to don goofy glasses or headsets and experience media in three dimensions. And many of those people are discovering something about themselves: 3D makes them ill. Sitting in the theater or on their own couch, they get a sensation like motion sickness. They might feel nausea, dizziness, or disorientation.
A new study suggests that these symptoms aren't weakness on the part of the viewer. People who... Read more »
Allen, B., Hanley, T., Rokers, B., & Green, C. (2016) Visual 3D motion acuity predicts discomfort in 3D stereoscopic environments. Entertainment Computing, 1-9. DOI: 10.1016/j.entcom.2016.01.001
Although lizards mostly scurry on all fours, certain species can run on two legs when the mood strikes. What's the benefit to this human-like running style? For one thing, it seems to let lizards get over obstacles without slowing down. They just have to make sure not to tip over.
Georgia Southern University biologist Lance McBrayer and graduate student Seth Parker studied running in a handsome little reptile called Sceloporus woodi, or the Florida scrub lizard. McBrayer says there's been... Read more »
Parker, S., & McBrayer, L. (2016) The effects of multiple obstacles on the locomotor behavior and performance of a terrestrial lizard. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.120451
Between 1993 and 2015, cattle killed 13 people who were out for walks in the United Kingdom. Dozens more walkers received broken bones or other injuries from the animals.
Murderous cattle are an understudied phenomenon, say veterinarian Angharad Fraser-Williams and other researchers at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. So they scoured news articles and scientific literature to learn about cattle attacks over two decades. They turned up some advice for people wishing to av........ Read more »
Think about the last time you stood squinting in front of a full-length mirror, trying to decide whether the colors in your outfit went together. Now imagine you're a reptile, and you wouldn't even understand a mirror if you saw one, but somehow you need to find a rock that matches your skin color. Otherwise you might get eaten by a bird today. Oh, and the skin color you need to match is on your back.
Certain lizards in Greece manage to pull this off every day, though how they do it is a ... Read more »
Marshall, K., Philpot, K., & Stevens, M. (2016) Microhabitat choice in island lizards enhances camouflage against avian predators. Scientific Reports, 19815. DOI: 10.1038/srep19815
No one would argue that tardigrades got stiffed in the weirdness department. These teensy animals, also called water bears, look roly-poly under a microscope. Less than a millimeter long, they can survive extremes of heat, cold, pressure, and radiation that are deadly to most other lifeforms. Under duress, a tardigrade may curl itself into a dried-up ball called a tun, then stay in a state of suspended animation for years before returning to life. Now, researchers poring over the animal's g........ Read more »
Smith, F., Boothby, T., Giovannini, I., Rebecchi, L., Jockusch, E., & Goldstein, B. (2016) The Compact Body Plan of Tardigrades Evolved by the Loss of a Large Body Region. Current Biology, 26(2), 224-229. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.11.059
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