Elizabeth Preston

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  • September 24, 2012
  • 04:15 PM

The Case of the Hollering Koala

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

During mating season, a sound like an asthmatic pig on a trampoline echoes from the canopy of the eucalyptus forest. It's the mysterious koala bellow, a sound that (when it comes from males) may mean "Come and get me, ladies!" or "Don't start a fight with this guy if you know what's good for you"—or something else entirely. Scientists aren't sure. But they've come a step closer to deciphering this marsupial's dialect by finding out how far its messages can travel through the trees........ Read more »

Benjamin D. Charlton, David Reby, William A. H. Ellis, Jacqui Brumm, & W. Tecumseh Fitch. (2012) Estimating the Active Space of Male Koala Bellows: Propagation of Cues to Size and Identity in a Eucalyptus Forest. PLOS ONE. info:/10.1371/journal.pone.0045420

  • September 17, 2012
  • 04:16 PM

In Adolescence, Fears Are Harder to Forget

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

When it comes to fear, unlearning is as crucial as learning. Our growing brains learn to be afraid of scalding pans, oncoming traffic, and our parents calling us by our full names. But if we can't unlearn a fearful reaction, we may live our whole lives paralyzed by dentists' offices or barking chihuahuas. The ease of this unlearning may depend on our age: new research suggests that in both mice and humans, fears are hardest to dislodge in adolescence.

People suffering from PTSD or phobias ar........ Read more »

Siobhan S. Pattwell, Stéphanie Duhoux, Catherine A. Hartley, David C. Johnson, Deqiang Jing, Mark D. Elliott, Erika J. Ruberry, Alisa Powers, Natasha Mehta, Rui R. Yang.... (2012) Altered fear learning across development in both mouse and human. PNAS. info:/10.1073/pnas.1206834109

  • September 13, 2012
  • 12:13 PM

Sex Makes Everything Less Disgusting

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Our biological drive to do it conflicts pretty directly with our biological drive not to get involved with other people's bodily fluids. How do we ignore the obvious grossness of sex for long enough to propagate the species? Maybe, researchers say, by turning off our disgust reflex whenever we get turned on.

Earlier studies have asked this question in a variety of ways. For example, by asking men to "self-stimulate" and then quizzing them on what sex acts or partners they'd be open to. ........ Read more »

Charmaine Borg, & Peter J. de Jong. (2012) Feelings of Disgust and Disgust-Induced Avoidance Weaken following Induced Sexual Arousal in Women. PLOS ONE. info:/10.1371/journal.pone.0044111

  • September 10, 2012
  • 05:11 PM

Subliminal Placebo: You Didn't See It, but It's Working

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

The latest additions to the placebo effect family might be the rudest. First there was placebo, which uses your body's own tools to make you feel better after you try a treatment you imagine will help you. Then there was nocebo, placebo's evil twin: it makes you feel worse only because you think you will. Now researchers have discovered that placebo and nocebo effects can be triggered subliminally, which is like finding out that the good and evil twins have both been living in your basement w........ Read more »

Karin B. Jensen, Ted J. Kaptchuk, Irving Kirsch, Jacqueline Raicek, Kara M. Lindstrom, Chantal Berna, Randy L. Gollub, Martin Ingvar, & and Jian Kong. (2012) Nonconscious activation of placebo and nocebo pain responses. PNAS. info:/10.1073/pnas.1202056109

  • 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 »

  • September 3, 2012
  • 02:07 PM

Thieving Baby-Killer Bees Welcomed to the Family

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Bee-related surprises are rarely good ones. But entomologists were delighted recently to discover five brand-new bee species in Africa. In another happy twist, these bees are thugs that break into other bees' nests, steal their food, and eat their babies.

The new species belong to a group called "cuckoo bees." Don't worry, they don't fly out of clocks (nor is the name in reference to their sanity). Instead, they're named in honor of cuckoo birds, which notoriously sneak their eggs into othe........ Read more »

  • August 30, 2012
  • 11:49 AM

Long-Suffering Snail Dads Carry Illegitimate Babies

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

If you can't find the snail in the photo above, it's because he's loaded down with thousands of cannibalistic babies—and most of them aren't even his. Dads in this marine species do all the egg-sitting, while moms scoot off to mate with other males. The males' willingness to care for the eggs of their rivals isn't just unusual: it's opposite to the standard rules of evolution.

Rather than laying their eggs on, say, a rock, female Solenosteira macrospira snails glue egg-stuffed capsule........ Read more »

  • August 27, 2012
  • 04:27 PM

Blood Test Reveals the Time Inside You

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Like flowers opening and closing with the sun, our bodies have a rhythm that follows the daily turning of the earth. Processes speed up and slow down; hormones rise and fall; we feel wakeful or tired. But our internal clocks aren't always in sync with the day. By finding out what time our bodies think it is, doctors can time their treatments to work better. And now, there might be a simple way to check the time on our inner clocks.

The idea of coordinating medical treatments with the ti........ Read more »

Takeya Kasukawa, Masahiro Sugimoto, Akiko Hida, Yoichi Minami, Masayo Mori, Sato Honma, Ken-ichi Honma, Kazuo Mishima, Tomoyoshi Soga, & Hiroki R. Ueda. (2012) Human blood metabolite timetable indicates internal body time. PNAS. info:/10.1073/pnas.1207768109

  • 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 »

  • August 20, 2012
  • 04:15 PM

Wasps Follow Order of Succession When Queen Dies

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

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. But there are 16 people lined up behind the VP to take over (a list that no longer includes the postmaster general and now culminates........ 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

  • August 16, 2012
  • 11:56 AM

Close Look at Bison DNA Reveals Our Dirty Fingerprints

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

We really owe the American bison an apology. But where do you buy a card that says, "Sorry we wiped out nearly your entire species, then muddied your DNA by forcing you to mate with cows"? Would flowers be better?

In the 19th century Americans slaughtered bison (also referred to as buffaloes) with impunity. We killed them to sell their skins, to get them out of the way of our new trains, and to make life harder for Native Americans. It wasn't a shining moment. By the end of the 1800s the bis........ Read more »

Derr JN, Hedrick PW, Halbert ND, Plough L, Dobson LK, King J, Duncan C, Hunter DL, Cohen ND, & Hedgecock D. (2012) Phenotypic Effects of Cattle Mitochondrial DNA in American Bison. Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology. PMID: 22862781  

  • August 13, 2012
  • 04:29 PM

Hyenas Show It's Better to Be Creative than Try, Try Again

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

It's not a sentiment you'll see on an inspirational poster anytime soon: When facing a problem, sheer persistence is not enough. At least, not if you're a hyena. Presented with a latched box holding a hunk of meat, wild hyenas tried hard to extract the food. Their success depended on their fearlessness and the number of different strategies they tried, but not on hard work.

Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) are hardy and adaptable animals. They're resourceful hunters, takin........ Read more »

Benson-Amram S, & Holekamp KE. (2012) Innovative problem solving by wild spotted hyenas. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society. PMID: 22874748  

  • August 9, 2012
  • 11:41 AM

How to Unstick a Gecko

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

During a downpour in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, one sound you will not hear is the patter of geckos hitting the ground. Their sticky feet keep them adhered in habitats all over the world, from jungles to deserts to glass-windowed cities. Yet scientists have found that there is one way to loosen the lizards. Soaking geckos’ feet in water, or submerging the surface they walk on, defeats their sticky superpower—and gives new clues to researchers trying to replicate it for human use......... Read more »

Alyssa Y. Stark, Timothy W. Sullivan, & Peter H. Niewiarowski. (2012) The effect of surface water and wetting on gecko adhesion. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.070912  

  • August 6, 2012
  • 12:07 PM

Mom's Genes Make Males Die Sooner

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Men who make it to adulthood without succumbing to the male habit of dying in accidents shouldn't congratulate themselves too soon: their life expectancy still doesn't match a woman's. In industrialized countries, women at every age out-survive men. And it's not just humans. Males that die before females have been observed throughout the animal kingdom. It's even true of the lowly fruit fly, and it looks like harmful mutations in mothers' genes are to blame.

This idea, which has be........ Read more »

M. Florencia Camus, David J. Clancy, & Damian K. Dowling. (2012) Mitochondria, Maternal Inheritance, and Male Aging. Current Biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.07.018  

  • August 2, 2012
  • 12:23 PM

New OCD Symptom: Tail Chasing

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

The comments on online forums are sometimes resigned, sometimes plaintive. One four-year-old "has always has some OCD issues," reports Brookey77, "especially when it comes to tennis balls. When he was a pup, he sucked on them as a baby would suck on a pacifier...Then he started eating them...For the last few months, he has been eating his leg."

An 8-month-old pitt bull is "a shadow chaser," says ultimatek9. "She is fine at night and when it is overcast, but when the sun comes out she goes in........ Read more »

Tiira K, Hakosalo O, Kareinen L, Thomas A, Hielm-Björkman A, Escriou C, Arnold P, & Lohi H. (2012) Environmental effects on compulsive tail chasing in dogs. PloS one, 7(7). PMID: 22844513  

  • July 30, 2012
  • 04:09 PM

Enjoy Wine? Thank a Wasp

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Where would we be without yeast? Sober, for one thing. And stuck assembling our sandwiches between two crackers. Humans have relied on the hardworking microorganism for millennia to keep us fed and festive. Without realizing it, we may also have been relying on yeast's insect helpers: wasps that escort it around, store it during winter, and regurgitate it up for the next generation.

Yeast—avert your eyes now if you're squeamish about fungus—is a fungus. Just by going about its regular bu........ Read more »

Irene Stefanini, Leonardo Dapporto, Jean-Luc Legras, Antonio Calabretta, Monica Di Paola, Carlotta De Filippo, Roberto Viola, Paolo Capretti, Mario Polsinelli, Stefano Turillazzi.... (2012) Role of social wasps in Saccharomyces cerevisiae ecology and evolution. PNAS. info:/

  • July 26, 2012
  • 11:42 AM

It Takes an 8-Year-Old to Outsmart a Crow

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

When Aesop penned his fable about a thirsty hero who drops pebbles into a pitcher to raise the water to a sippable height, he was imagining a crow—not an elementary-schooler. And scientists have given real versions of this test to whole flocks of crows and related birds to test their smarts. Now they've turned the tables and given Aesop's test to children. The results are nothing for humans to brag about. By solving one kind of puzzle that stumped crows, though, the kids may have shown how ........ Read more »

Lucy G. Cheke, Elsa Loissel, & Nicola S. Clayton. (2012) How Do Children Solve Aesop's Fable?. PLoS ONE. info:/10.1371/journal.pone.0040574

  • July 23, 2012
  • 01:02 PM

Geometry Proves Sheep Are Selfish Jerks

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Sometimes what looks like friendly behavior is really an attempt to get one's neighbor eaten by a wolf before oneself. Sheep, for instance, seem cozy enough in their flocks. What's a better way to travel than surrounded by 100 percent merino? But the real reason they stick close to their neighbors is to save their own woolly rear ends.

The question of what motivates seemingly community-minded animals is a classic one in biology. Do the birds in a flock, or the fish in a shoal, just enjoy ea........ Read more »

Andrew J. King, Alan M. Wilson, Simon D. Wilshin, John Lowe, Hamed Haddadi, Stephen Hailes, & A. Jennifer Morton. (2012) Selfish-herd behaviour of sheep under threat. Current Biology, 22(14). info:/10.1016/j.cub.2012.05.008

  • July 19, 2012
  • 12:45 PM

How We Changed Penguins Just by Watching

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

If a penguin falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, I don't know what kind of forest that is—but everyone who's interested in penguins is probably hanging out a lot closer to the South Pole. The charismatic birds let scientists and tourists alike get a close look without too much trouble. And all that familiarity has the potential to change penguins, and other closely watched animals, for good.

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) appeal to zoo visitors and cold-resistant t........ Read more »

  • July 16, 2012
  • 12:16 PM

How Placebo's Evil Twin Makes You Sicker

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Whenever a pharmaceutical company tests a new migraine prevention drug, nearly 1 in 20 subjects will drop out because they can't stand the drug's side effects. They'd rather deal with the headaches than keep receiving treatment. But those suffering patients might be surprised to learn that the drug they've quit is only a sugar pill: the 5 percent dropout rate is from the placebo side.

Lurking in the shadows around any discussion of the placebo effect is its nefarious and lesser-known twin, t........ Read more »

Winfried Häuser, Ernil Hansen, & Paul Enck. (2012) Nocebo phenomena in medicine: Their relevance in everyday clinical practice. Deutsches Ärzteblatt International. info:/10.3238/arztebl.2012.0459

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