Elizabeth Preston

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  • November 22, 2013
  • 04:05 PM

Bees Can Smell How Much Sex Their Queen Has Had

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Just because girl talk between bees is wordless doesn't mean it lacks for intimate details. When sister honey bees gather around their queen, they can tell from her pheromones whether she's mated—and how much. What they learn may determine whether they let her live.The queen honey bee doesn't do much day-to-day ruling, but she does lay nearly every egg in the hive. Her daughters become worker bees, who keep the colony running. Pheromones that the queen and the workers emit—then spread throug........ Read more »

  • November 18, 2013
  • 11:29 AM

You Might Have Outgrown Synesthesia as a Kid

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Feeling smug because your normal brain doesn't insist on coloring all its 2's blue and M's purple? Not so fast: you might have been a child synesthete. Some elementary schoolers have associations between colors and letters or numbers that fade as they age. Others' associations expand to take over the whole alphabet, leading them toward a rainbow-hued adult life.Studying kids with synesthesia is tricky, because first you have to find them—and at a young age, kids don't know the word, or that th........ Read more »

  • November 15, 2013
  • 11:20 AM

Citizen Scientists Dig Up the Truth about Decomposing Dung

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

The amount of cow dung plopped into the world every day is almost unthinkable, but Tomas Roslin is thinking about it."We can regard it as either an immense waste problem or an enormous ecosystem service," he says. He means that what starts out as a turd in a field turns into a wealth of nutrients for plants—assuming it can make its way below ground. So understanding how dung gets broken down can help us ensure an ecosystem is running smoothly. To address such a messy, large-scale question........ Read more »

  • November 12, 2013
  • 12:24 PM

Found: The Brain's Rotten-Smell Button

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Window or aisle? Hamburger or hot dog? Bouquet of flowers or rotting flesh? Not all your preferences are up to you—some have been hammered into your genes by evolution.

If you're an average human, you avoid the smell of decay. It signals unsafe food and the threat of infection or disease. Other animals run toward the stench of a stale carcass, maybe because they're flies and it signals a place to lay their eggs.

Whether they love it or hate it, animals identify the scent of rot from two s........ Read more »

Ashiq Hussain, Luis R. Saraiva, David M. Ferrero, Gaurav Ahuja, Venkatesh S. Krishna, Stephen D. Liberles, & Sigrun I. Korsching. (2013) High-affinity olfactory receptor for the death-associated odor cadaverine. PNAS. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1318596110  

  • November 8, 2013
  • 11:52 AM

Fungus-Farming Beetles Start Tending Their Crop as Babies

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Inside the stems of Japanese bamboo plants, tiny farmers are working in secret. They tend to their crop of fungus, growing it in plump white clusters on their walls for eating, all while sealed safely away from the rest of the world. They begin farming the day they hatch—and when they retire, tuck some of their crop into their pockets to pass on to the next generation.

The farmer is Doubledaya bucculenta, a species of lizard beetle. Many social insects (those that live in colonies) are wel........ Read more »

  • November 6, 2013
  • 02:00 PM

Schrödinger's Turtle: How Observing Ocean Animals Can Harm Them

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

We rely on roving ocean creatures to fetch us all kinds of data we couldn't get otherwise. Carrying cameras or GPS units or sensors glued to their bodies, marine animals collect data for human scientists about the health of ocean ecosystems or how their own species migrate. Yet lugging our equipment through the sea may be harder for these creatures than we realize. By tagging them, we might be slowing down or even harming the same species we're trying to preserve.

When scientists tag birds, ........ Read more »

T. Todd Jones, Kyle S. Van Houtan, Brian L. Bostrom, Peter Ostafichuk, JonMikkelsen, EmreTezcan, Michael Carey, Brittany Imlach, & Jeffrey A. Seminoff. (2013) Calculating the ecological impacts of animal-borne instruments on aquatic organisms. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. DOI: 10.1111/2041-210X.12109  

  • October 31, 2013
  • 03:53 PM

What Left-Handed Ultimate Fighters Tell Us (or Not) About Evolution

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Don't despair, left-handers who have just smeared the ink across your paper yet again. You have a true purpose in life, some scientists say—and it's walloping other people in the head. A flying elbow drop would work too. Researchers recently pored over video of hundreds of UFC fights to test the idea that lefties evolved with an edge in hand-to-hand combat.

Various other animals show a preference for one paw, or one swimming direction, over the other. But humans are notable for almost alwa........ Read more »

  • October 29, 2013
  • 01:47 PM

Beetles Show There Is Such Thing as a Free Lunch, and It's a Weapon Attached to Your Face

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

If the rhinoceros beetle were the size of an actual rhinoceros, its horn could be 16 feet long. Male beetles grow this gargantuan face-fork so they can win mates (why else?). And even though evolutionary science would predict that the beetle pays a price for this appendage, it seems to come absolutely free.

Males of many animal species wear showy accessories: antlers on deer, long tails on birds. Growing one of these accessories often comes at a cost. For example, energy spent growing one la........ Read more »

  • October 25, 2013
  • 12:52 PM

Snoozing on the Weekend Won't Undo Workweek Sleep Loss

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Does your workweek schedule dig you into an ever-deepening hole of sleep deprivation? Do you sleep in on the weekends to try to boost yourself back out? You're in good company. But even if you feel recovered by the following week, your brainpower might be suffering.

In a survey by the National Sleep Foundation, 40 percent of respondents said they try to "catch up" on sleep during the weekend. Pennsylvania State University professor and physician Alexandros Vgontzas, along with a group of col........ Read more »

Pejovic S, Basta M, Vgontzas AN, Kritikou I, Shaffer ML, Tsaoussoglou M, Stiffler D, Stefanakis Z, Bixler EO, & Chrousos GP. (2013) Effects of recovery sleep after one work week of mild sleep restriction on interleukin-6 and cortisol secretion and daytime sleepiness and performance. American journal of physiology. Endocrinology and metabolism, 305(7). PMID: 23941878  

  • October 23, 2013
  • 12:27 PM

World's Ugliest Fish Jam Each Other's Mating Calls

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Perhaps understandably, the male toadfish doesn't rely on his looks to attract females. He uses a bellowing, foghorn-like call to lure the ladies instead. But he'd better beware of his neighbors—nearby toadfish, a scientist has discovered, use short grunts to stealthily jam each other's signals.

In the spring, at the start of breeding season, male oyster toadfish nestle into rocks and debris on shallow seafloors in the western Atlantic. From his hidden nest, the male sends out his tuba bla........ Read more »

  • October 18, 2013
  • 04:29 PM

To Crash Others' Nests, Cuckoos Impersonate Birds of Prey

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

In the avian world, cuckoos are the villains you root for. These diabolical birds can trick others into raising the cuckoos' young instead of their own. From a thick playbook of deceptions, one trick cuckoos use is to impersonate local bullies. This apparently convinces their victims to let cuckoos walk right into their nests.

Cuckoos live all over the world, and most species are model citizens, building their own nests and raising their own offspring. But many species are so-called brood p........ Read more »

  • October 15, 2013
  • 01:38 PM

Fish Evolve Stabbier Genitals When Predators Are Near

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Like sock garters and homburg hats, the equipment used by our great-grandparents doesn't always cut it for later generations. Certain male fish have evolved differently shaped genitals depending on what other fish share their caves. Attracting females, though, doesn't seem to be as important not getting eaten.

Most fish reproduce simply by scattering a lot of of eggs and sperm around their environment. But a few types of fish are "livebearers": their eggs are fertilized and hatched inside th........ Read more »

  • October 11, 2013
  • 12:10 PM

Unempathetic Kids Don't Get Sarcasm

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

A crucial tool in your social survival kit is the ability to tell when someone means the opposite of what they're saying. For centuries, writers have tried to aid readers' detection of sarcasm with various typographic contortions: backward question marks, upside-down or zigzagged exclamation marks, even left-leaning italics dubbed "ironics."* (None of these have stuck, probably because pointing out when you're being sarcastic totally ruins it.)

For kids, sarcasm is a developmental hurdle to ........ Read more »

Andrew Nicholson, Juanita M. Whalen, & Penny M. Pexman. (2013) Children's processing of emotion in ironic language. Frontiers in Psychology. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00691  

  • October 8, 2013
  • 12:46 PM

Elusive Marine Mammal Uses Interspecies Buddy System

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

What ocean mammal is a rare bird but not a lone wolf? Meet the false killer whale. You're not likely to ever spot one in the wild, but if you do, it won't be alone. These animals prefer to travel with a crowd—not just of their own species, but also including their closest companion, the bottlenose dolphin.

False killer whales are so named because the look a little like killer whales, or orcas.* Yet unlike their showy namesake, false killer whales are rarely encountered by humans. In most p........ Read more »

  • October 4, 2013
  • 01:44 PM

The Elderly Make Even Worse Decisions Than Teens

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

The wisdom of aging may not apply to economic decisions. In a study of choices make about money, the oldest people performed the worst—even beating out the usual bad-decision champions, adolescents.

Agnieszka Tymula, a decision scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia, studies economic decision making in humans (and sometimes monkeys). With colleagues at Yale and New York University, she gathered 135 total subjects in four different age groups: teens (12-17), young adults (21-25)........ Read more »

  • October 1, 2013
  • 01:55 PM

Mice Mark Their Territory with Song

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Like warring street-corner troubadours, certain mice sing to claim their territory. They may not get any tips in their guitar cases, but by knowing where it's safe to sing, they keep the whole neighborhood harmonious.

Two related species of singing mice share the mountains of Costa Rica and Panama. One, Scotinomys teguina or Alston's singing mouse, lives at lower altitudes and is widespread in the forests of Central America. The other species, Scotinomys xerampelinus or the Chiriquí si........ Read more »

  • September 27, 2013
  • 03:25 PM

Threat of Death Makes People Go Shopping

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Nothing says "Let's hit the outlet mall" like nearly being wiped out by a rocket. A study of both Americans and terrorized Israelis suggests that certain people respond to the threat of death by going shopping. Because if it's your time to go, you may as well be wearing the latest from Forever 21.

Michigan State University marketing professor Ayalla Ruvio and her colleagues performed two studies of potential shoppers. The first took place in Israel. Questionnaires were handed out at a commun........ Read more »

  • September 24, 2013
  • 12:42 PM

Coloring In Birds' Bellies with Magic Marker Makes Them Healthier

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Remember when you were a kid and the magic marker boxes always had some sort of really elaborate drawing on the back? As if to say, "Buy these eight wide-tip Mr. Sketches and you, too, will be able to create a photorealistic portrait of a scarlet macaw"? But when you bought the markers and tried to copy the picture, it always came out as a stupid magic marker bird? You might have gotten more realistic results by coloring directly on a real animal. Some scientists tried this, and changed the b........ Read more »

  • September 20, 2013
  • 01:59 PM

Farmer Slime Molds Carry Pest-Killing Friends to Protect Their Crop

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Even single-celled farmers have to protect their crop from hungry mouths. That's why slime molds carry certain toxic bacteria inside their bodies on their way to farming others in the soil. Like living Roundup, these bacteria harm competitors while helping their farmer hosts to survive and even thrive.

Slime molds start out life as one-celled amoebae, living in soil or mulch and munching their way through the bacteria there. Once food becomes scarce, they seek each other out and glom togethe........ Read more »

Debra A. Brock, Silven Read, Alona Bozhchenko, David C. Queller, & Joan E. Strassmann. (2013) Social amoeba farmers carry defensive symbionts to protect and privatize their crops. Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms3385  

  • September 12, 2013
  • 01:13 PM

For Diguise, Female Squid Turn On Fake Testes

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

The best way to stay out of trouble, if you're a shimmery, color-changing little squid, might be to paint on some pretend testes. Scientists have found that certain female squid can switch on and off a body pattern that makes them look male. They use a never-before-seen cell type to do it, and it may be all for the sake of keeping the actual testes owners far away.

The opalescent inshore squid, Doryteuthis opalescens, lives in the Eastern Pacific and is one of the main species caught for foo........ Read more »

Daniel G. DeMartini, Amitabh Ghoshal, Erica Pandolfi, Aaron T. Weaver, Mary Baum, & Daniel E. Morse. (2013) Dynamic biophotonics: female squid exhibit sexually dimorphic tunable leucophores and iridocytes. Journal of Experimental Biology. info:/10.1242/​jeb.090415

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