Inkfish

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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
341 posts

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  • March 31, 2015
  • 11:01 AM
  • 30 views

Moths Fondly Remember Plant Species Where They Lost Their Virginity

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



Think real estate decisions are hard for humans? Imagine if the house you lived in were also your singles bar, your babies' nursery, and your shelter from large animals trying to eat you. And, while you were growing up, your food source, as you nibbled away its floors and shingles.

Moths face all these pressures each time they settle down on a plant. That may be why at least one type of moth uses pleasant associations to help with its choices. The plant species where an individual loses........ Read more »

  • March 27, 2015
  • 09:06 AM
  • 58 views

The ABCs of Alphabet-Magnet Synesthesia

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



Is it cool or existentially disturbing to think that your personal brain quirks might come from the toys you played with as a toddler?

In a study published earlier this month, psychologists asked 6,588 American synesthetes what colors they associate with each letter of the alphabet. Then they compared these associations to a certain vintage set of Fisher-Price alphabet magnets. They found that at least 6% of their synesthetes had improbably close matches to the colors of the magnets.

T... Read more »

  • March 24, 2015
  • 10:11 AM
  • 60 views

Global Warming Turns Rainforest Leaves into Junk Food

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



Like those breakfast cereals that look healthy on the box but have even more sugar inside than Cocoa Puffs, some rainforest trees engage in false advertising. It's not their fault—it's ours. Climate change has made their leaves less nutritious than they used to be. And the animals who live off of those trees don't exactly have another store to shop at.

Experiments in labs and greenhouses have given scientists mixed answers about what happens to plant tissues in a changing climate. So pr........ Read more »

Rothman, J., Chapman, C., Struhsaker, T., Raubenheimer, D., Twinomugisha, D., & Waterman, P. (2015) Long-term declines in nutritional quality of tropical leaves. Ecology, 96(3), 873-878. DOI: 10.1890/14-0391.1  

  • March 20, 2015
  • 12:08 PM
  • 89 views

Gliding Ant Flies like a Backward Superman

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



Travel to the Amazon and flick an ant off a leaf, and you might be surprised what you see. Certain rainforest ant species can control their falls and glide back onto the trunks of the trees they came from. Unlike Superman, though, they're only flying to rescue themselves.

An ant is light enough that a drop to the forest floor might not hurt it. But the other animals cruising the ground for snacks will cause trouble for that ant soon enough. That's why many rainforest ants have evolved to ... Read more »

Munk Y, Yanoviak SP, Koehl MA, & Dudley R. (2015) The descent of ant: field-measured performance of gliding ants. The Journal of experimental biology. PMID: 25788722  

  • March 17, 2015
  • 10:53 AM
  • 106 views

The Palm Tree That Waters and Fertilizes Itself

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



Even the most dismal gardener wouldn't mind taking charge of a plot of Lodoicea maldivica. This palm tree knows how to water itself. It even adds fertilizer. As a result, it rules the forest, turning a bad soil situation into seeds the size of a four-year-old human.

Lodoicea maldivica is commonly called the coco de mer palm. "Commonly" might be the wrong word, though, since the tree grows on exactly two islands in the world, in the Seychelles. It roots itself in soil made from weathered g........ Read more »

  • March 13, 2015
  • 10:22 AM
  • 101 views

Being Stabbed with a Mucus Dagger Is Not Even the Worst Part of Snail Sex

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



If snails used Facebook, all their relationship statuses would say "It's complicated." It's also slimy, violent, and life-shortening.

Most species of snail that live on land are hermaphroditic—that is, they have a complete set of female and male sex organs. When they mate, both partners inseminate each other. The act may come after a courtship period. And in certain land snails, this courtship includes the launching of "love darts," which are much less cute than they sound.

A love dart........ Read more »

  • March 6, 2015
  • 10:06 AM
  • 129 views

The Women Who Stare at Babies

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



A drooling baby face is not equally exciting to everyone around it. A new study says that young women who like the idea of motherhood get more enjoyment than their peers from staring at infants' faces. But they don't love all of those chubby mugs equally. Even more than the baby-neutral, wannabe moms are biased toward the cutest ones.

Amanda Hahn is a researcher at the University of Glasgow's "Face Research Lab," directed by psychologists Lisa DeBruine and Benedict Jones. (On their websit... Read more »

  • March 3, 2015
  • 10:45 AM
  • 93 views

Shy Crabs Make the Most Sperm

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



A fellow who hides in his shell until danger has passed may not seem like the epitome of manliness. Yet among hermit crabs, the shyest males have the most to offer the ladies. It's all part of their evolutionary strategy. Crabs that are long on bravery, meanwhile, are short on sperm.

Mark Briffa, an animal behavior professor at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, and his colleagues found the surprising connection between sperm and shyness while studying "life history" in crabs. To........ Read more »

  • February 27, 2015
  • 12:02 PM
  • 154 views

Good News, Northerners: Birds from Harsher Climates Are Smarter

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



You won't see a chickadee shoveling out a parking space and claiming it with a folding chair, no matter how good your binoculars are. But birds, too, have to be resourceful when they live in inhospitable climates. Travel just 600 meters up a mountain, and you'll find chickadees vastly more clever than their peers living a more comfortable life below.

How do you test the cleverness of birds? Using tubes with tasty worms inside, naturally. Biologists don't like to call animals "smart," thou... Read more »

  • February 24, 2015
  • 10:56 AM
  • 147 views

A Few Citizen Scientists Do Most of the Work

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



Nothing turns your internet procrastination time into feelings of goodwill and teamwork like a citizen science project. You can click through a set of penguin photos or moon craters and know that your data are contributing to real science. As more citizens take part, and more researchers discover the joys of free labor, these projects are gaining popularity. But not all citizen scientists pull their weight. In fact, most do nearly nothing.

Henry Sauermann, a management professor at the G........ Read more »

Sauermann, H., & Franzoni, C. (2015) Crowd science user contribution patterns and their implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(3), 679-684. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1408907112  

  • February 20, 2015
  • 11:17 AM
  • 127 views

The Little Lemming That Could (Bite Your Face Off)

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



In a world of shy, quiet-as-a-mouse rodents, one lemming is the exact opposite. It attacks when it should retreat to a hole. It squeals and shrieks when it should keep silent. One scientist is working to figure out how evolution created this animal—and wearing thick gloves while he does it.

First, forget what you think you know about lemmings. You've likely heard a rumor that these rodents hurl themselves off of cliffs in droves. It's not true, though the makers of a 1958 Disney documenta... Read more »

  • February 13, 2015
  • 12:35 PM
  • 178 views

You Can Force Birds to Be Friends, but It Won't Stick

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



As anyone who's made valentines for a whole elementary-school class knows, kids are often pushed into social groups not of their choosing. Scientists tried the same thing with wild birds and found it pretty easy to coax them into new cliques. The birds hung out with their new social circles even when they didn't have to. But once the experiment ended, those friendships dissolved faster than a candy conversation heart.

To create new social groups in birds, researchers essentially controlle... Read more »

  • February 6, 2015
  • 10:49 AM
  • 184 views

Cleaner Lakes Are Social Media Stars

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



Minnesota is the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," at least 13 of which are named Clear. But some of these lakes are clearer and cleaner than others. Does that matter to the tourists who visit them? Researchers found an easy way to answer this question by taking a deep dive into Flickr.

Bonnie Keeler, a scientist at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, explains that it's important to measure how the public is using various lakes, rivers and streams. Agencies that are trying........ Read more »

Keeler, B., Wood, S., Polasky, S., Kling, C., Filstrup, C., & Downing, J. (2015) Recreational demand for clean water: evidence from geotagged photographs by visitors to lakes. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2147483647. DOI: 10.1890/140124  

  • February 3, 2015
  • 10:15 AM
  • 139 views

Hungry Bees Lose Self-Control

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



We've all been there: it's easy enough to follow our plans to exercise and eat healthily, until suddenly it's 4:30 in the afternoon and we're ready to plunge our faces into the first dandelion we see. Honeybees, like humans, can exert self-control when making decisions about food. But when they get hungry enough, that control buzzes right out the window.

For a bee, of course, self-control isn't about Pilates and salads. Worker honeybees mostly consume nectar. When they get back to the ........ Read more »

Mayack C, & Naug D. (2015) Starving honeybees lose self-control. Biology letters, 11(1). PMID: 25631230  

  • January 30, 2015
  • 11:30 AM
  • 181 views

City Rabbits, like Humans, Live in Smaller Homes

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



Imagine you're on a particularly boring leg of a road trip and you start counting houses. You pass through long stretches of country without counting anything. When you do see houses, they're clustered into towns, and may have spacious yards with tire swings. As you approach a city (finally!), rows of houses appear at regular intervals instead of clumping. And in the heart of the city they shrink into little apartments that go by too fast for you to count. European rabbits, it turns out, b........ Read more »

  • January 27, 2015
  • 10:27 AM
  • 148 views

Athletic Training Makes Lizards Better Runners

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



Athletes don't normally need to be chased down the track to get their training mileage in. But a green anole lizard is not a normal athlete.

Scientists wanted to know whether it's possible to train a lizard at all. Human athletes and other mammals perform better with consistent exercise, but is this universal? Can a reptile increase its stamina? What about its sprint speed? So the scientists became lizard athletic trainers, which really means lizard harassers. Results were mixed.

The g... Read more »

  • January 23, 2015
  • 10:43 AM
  • 238 views

Dung DNA Gives Clues to the Shy Okapi's Lifestyle

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



Try to read up on the okapi and you won't find much. This African mammal is most often seen next to the adjective "elusive." But even if we can't find any okapi, we can learn about their lifestyle through their DNA—and we can find their DNA in their feces.

The okapi is an ungulate, like a cow. Or really like a giraffe, its closest relative. It has an elegant face, a long bluish tongue, and a zebra-striped rear end. It lives in the dense rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo, che........ Read more »

  • January 21, 2015
  • 10:40 AM
  • 236 views

Polar Bears Leave Messages in Their Footprints

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



If a polar bear tells you to talk to the hand, don't be offended. The animals seem to communicate with each other through scent trails left by their paws. Their tracks tell a story to the other bears roaming their habitat, helping potential mates to find each other—as long as there's habitat left, anyway.

As they crisscross the snowy Arctic, polar bears are usually alone. In other solitary bear species, animals leave messages for each other by rubbing their bodies or urine onto trees or........ Read more »

Owen, M., Swaisgood, R., Slocomb, C., Amstrup, S., Durner, G., Simac, K., & Pessier, A. (2015) An experimental investigation of chemical communication in the polar bear. Journal of Zoology, 295(1), 36-43. DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12181  

  • January 13, 2015
  • 11:30 AM
  • 407 views

Bees Drink with Expandable Mop Tongues

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



A perennially fascinating question to scientists is how animals get liquids into their faces without cups, straws or hands. In recent years they've cracked the puzzle in dogs and cats, two creatures that often do their noisy drinking near us. Bees, too, sip nectar in plain sight of humans. But their methods are more subtle and mysterious.

Shaoze Yan, a mechanical engineering professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, and his colleagues took a very close look at Italian honeybees ... Read more »

  • January 9, 2015
  • 10:09 AM
  • 248 views

Memo to Carmakers: This Fish Is a Bad Model

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish



In 2005, Mercedes-Benz revealed a concept car with a strange shape. Called the Bionic, the cartoonishly snub-nosed vehicle was modeled after Ostracion cubicus, the yellow boxfish. Car manufacturers aren't the only ones to take inspiration from this weird coral dweller. But researchers now say engineers who mimicked the boxfish might have been misled.

Shaping the car like a boxfish was supposed to make it aerodynamic. And the fish's allegedly low drag underwater wasn't its only interest........ Read more »

Van Wassenbergh S, van Manen K, Marcroft TA, Alfaro ME, & Stamhuis EJ. (2015) Boxfish swimming paradox resolved: forces by the flow of water around the body promote manoeuvrability. Journal of the Royal Society, Interface / the Royal Society, 12(103). PMID: 25505133  

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