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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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  • June 28, 2012
  • 12:45 PM

When It Comes to Numbers, We're All Late Bloomers

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Good news for aspiring jelly-bean jar estimators who are under 30! Your intuitive grasp of numbers may not have peaked yet. Unlike other cognitive skills, the ability to approximate keeps improving well into adulthood. Since the skill is tied to mathematical smarts, this news might bring hope to struggling students.

Scientists call our intuitive understanding of numbers the approximate number system, or ANS. It lets us compare amounts or guess at the size of a solution without putting our think........ Read more »

Halberda J, Ly R, Wilmer JB, Naiman DQ, & Germine L. (2012) Number sense across the lifespan as revealed by a massive Internet-based sample. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 22733748  

  • July 28, 2011
  • 04:47 PM

Is the Aging Brain Uniquely Human?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Even if you stay free of Alzheimer's disease, the normal aging process is fairly destructive to your brain. Neurons disappear, connections lose their strength, protein gunk builds up, and the whole brain shrinks. Areas controlling learning and memory are among the hardest hit. A new study claims that our crumbling brains aren't just a fact of normal aging. Instead, they may be unique in the animal kingdom, the result of an evolutionary bargain our species has struck.Chet Sherwood at George Washi........ Read more »

Sherwood, C., Gordon, A., Allen, J., Phillips, K., Erwin, J., Hof, P., & Hopkins, W. (2011) Aging of the cerebral cortex differs between humans and chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016709108  

  • October 25, 2011
  • 07:08 PM

Clocks, Cancer, and the Best Time to Tan

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

If you can't bear to face your inbox before your first cup of coffee, you'll sympathize with cells in your body that are better equipped to face some challenges at certain times of day. Carcinogens, such as ultraviolet radiation, may be one such challenge. Can we lower our cancer risk by limiting our carcinogen exposure to certain hours of the day?

Circadian rhythms are day-long cycles that ebb and flow like tides within our bodies. We use the sun to keep our internal clocks calibrated. But ........ Read more »

Gaddameedhi, S., Selby, C., Kaufmann, W., Smart, R., & Sancar, A. (2011) Control of skin cancer by the circadian rhythm. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1115249108  

  • January 3, 2012
  • 03:43 PM

Chimps Prefer the 2-Point Conversion

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

If non-human great apes were coaching more football games, you could expect to see fewer extra points being kicked. We risk-averse humans usually prefer kicking an easy extra point after a touchdown, rather than attempting a more difficult 2-point conversion. But chimps and other great apes, after considering their odds, usually opt for the greater risk and the bigger reward.

By "reward," I mean banana.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany tested a group of chimpanzees, bonobo........ Read more »

  • 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

  • June 12, 2012
  • 12:20 PM

Overeating Makes Flies Obese, Diabetic, Dead

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Fruit flies that eat human diets suffer human consequences, according to new fly-fattening research. Overeating caused diabetic symptoms in flies, whether they ate too much sugar or went Atkins. Though these obese fruit flies die even more quickly than usual, their short-and-sweet lives might help researchers learn about diabetes in humans.

Drosophila are pretty distant relatives to us—as should be obvious from their wings and external skeletons—but our bodies make and manage insulin in........ Read more »

Morris, S., Coogan, C., Chamseddin, K., Fernandez-Kim, S., Kolli, S., Keller, J., & Bauer, J. (2012) Development of diet-induced insulin resistance in adult Drosophila melanogaster. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Molecular Basis of Disease, 1822(8), 1230-1237. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbadis.2012.04.012  

  • January 28, 2013
  • 12:35 PM

11 People Trace Synesthesia to One Set of Alphabet Magnets

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Most people with synesthesia can't tell you exactly why they perceive the letter M as purple and not orange, or a high C-sharp as bright yellow and not blue. For one group of synesthetes, though, there appears to be an answer. For their green D's, red G's, and so on, they can thank the toy company Fisher-Price.

Stanford researchers Nathan Witthoft and Jonathan Winawer discovered, through word of mouth and from synesthetes contacting them online, a group of people who share a "startlingly sim........ Read more »

Witthoft, N., & Winawer, J. (2013) Learning, Memory, and Synesthesia. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612452573  

  • January 27, 2012
  • 03:57 PM

When Psychologists Take Things Too Literally

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Thankfully, in brainstorming meetings where I'm asked to "think outside the box," no one has ever put me in an actual box. That's not true of the undergrads who volunteered for a recent psychology study.

Angela Leung, a researcher in Singapore, and her colleagues in the United States were studying a phenomenon called "embodied cognition." The idea is that a brain can't help being influenced by the body it's stuck inside. Feelings can run backward: We might be smiling because we're happy, or ........ Read more »

Angela Leung, Suntae Kim, Evan Polman, See Lay, Link Qiu, Jack Goncalo, & Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks. (2012) Embodied Metaphors and Creative "Acts". Psychological Science. info:/

  • December 3, 2012
  • 04:02 PM

Fishing Yanks the Best Parents from the (Gene) Pool

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

A fishing rod and reel aren't just gear for human recreation: they're the tools of evolution. The difference between fish we pull out of lakes or commercial fisheries by their lips and those we leave behind can drive change in entire fish populations. And that change may be for the worse. In at least some species, the fittest fish are the ones that end up on our hooks.

The largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) lives all over the United States and is a popular target of recreational anglers........ Read more »

David A. H. Sutter, Cory D. Suski, David P. Philipp, Thomas Klefoth, David H. Wahl, Petra Kersten, Steven J. Cooke, & Robert Arlinghaus. (2012) Recreational fishing selectively captures individuals with the highest fitness potential. PNAS. info:/10.1073/pnas.1212536109

  • January 10, 2013
  • 01:21 PM

Captive Animals Act Smarter

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

In the Kenyan wilderness, hyenas facing a meat-stuffed puzzle box performed impressively—impressively badly, that is. Researchers expected the animals to be up to the challenge, but few of them ever got the box open. Now, repeating the experiment with captive hyenas, they've discovered that there's no contest: the captive animals are better problem solvers.

Out of 62 wild hyenas in last year's study, less than 15 percent ever managed to slide the latch and swing open the door of the b........ Read more »

  • 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

  • September 4, 2013
  • 03:05 PM

Male Frogs Grip Mates with Pheromone-Injecting Thumb Spikes

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

There's nothing subtle about the wooing of European common frogs. Males grow spiny pads on their thumbs during the breeding season, the better to grip their mates. As if that weren't enough, the pads also seem to channel pheromones out of a frog's hands and straight into his female partner's body.

Frogs fertilize their eggs out in the open, so you might think there'd be no need for all this effort. Yet males of most frog species can be seen during the mating season "taking a piggyback ride" ........ Read more »

Bert Willaert, Franky Bossuyt, Sunita Janssenswillen, Dominique Adriaens, Geert Baggerman, Severine Matthijs, Elin Pauwels, Paul Proost, Arent Raepsaet, Liliane Schoofs.... (2013) Frog nuptial pads secrete mating season-specific proteins related to salamander pheromones. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.086363  

  • January 19, 2012
  • 09:52 AM

Dances with Dung Beetles

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

You know that moment when you realize that in every unloved corner of the animal kingdom, there’s an ant or a bee or a beetle standing on its head and pushing a boulder of crap that has a better sense of direction than you do?

Dung beetles are named for their favorite food source. Upon finding, say, a fresh cowpile, the dung beetle cuts off a chunk, shapes the specimen into a ball bigger than its body, and then rolls the ball away to a new location. Unlike Sisyphus, the dung beetle pushes ........ Read more »

Baird, E., Byrne, M., Smolka, J., Warrant, E., & Dacke, M. (2012) The Dung Beetle Dance: An Orientation Behaviour?. PLoS ONE, 7(1). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030211  

  • November 18, 2011
  • 03:42 PM

Synesthesia and the Excitable Brain

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

To people whose sensory perceptions stay quietly inside their own sandboxes instead of coming out to play with each other, it will come as no surprise that synesthetes--people who experience letters with colors, or sounds with tastes--have something paradoxical going on in their brains.

"Grapheme-color" synesthesia is the most common variant of the condition. These synesthetes associate letters and numbers with particular colors; for example, a person might consistently experience the color &nb........ Read more »

  • November 12, 2012
  • 03:32 PM

City Birds Adapt to a New Enemy: Cats

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Moving from a rural home into the city brings challenges like figuring out trains, maneuvering couches up staircases, and not being eaten. Birds that move into urban homes have to worry about a different set of predators than their relatives in the countryside do. Although they haven't learned how to avoid hungry truck grilles, urban birds have evolved some new tricks that help them dodge the claws of predatory house cats.

For a bird living in a rural habitat, the main threat is birds of p........ Read more »

  • March 9, 2012
  • 12:19 PM

Bees and Humans Crave Novelty for the Same Reasons

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

You might not expect to find much in common between a human brain and the brain of a flying insect that’s happy to sacrifice itself, for its colony’s safety, by tearing off its entire back end in your arm. But certain bees share a personality trait with certain humans. Even if their needs are met at home, they’re compelled to go searching for new experiences. And shared brain chemistry might be what’s driving both of us.

Although the worker bees in a hive are closely related sister........ Read more »

Liang, Z., Nguyen, T., Mattila, H., Rodriguez-Zas, S., Seeley, T., & Robinson, G. (2012) Molecular Determinants of Scouting Behavior in Honey Bees. Science, 335(6073), 1225-1228. DOI: 10.1126/science.1213962  

  • April 4, 2013
  • 03:19 PM

Kids Learn Better When Teachers Wave Their Hands

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Maybe it's no mistake that we talk about "grasping" new ideas. When we find our hands moving wildly as we try to explain something, maybe we shouldn't feel ridiculous. Research in math classrooms has found that kids learned better when a teacher used gestures—and their grip on the new material improved even more after the lesson ended.

Teachers who gesture more or less while they speak can have other differences too, of course: they might use different intonation or vocabulary, or have mor........ Read more »

  • December 7, 2011
  • 10:50 AM

To Avoid Harassment, Guppies Swim with Sexy Friends

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

You know how it is: You're minding your own business when up swims a male guppy determined to copulate with you. It's not your fertile time of the month, you're not giving off attractive chemical signals, and you'd rather spend your time eating than pointlessly mating. But he just won't leave you alone.

Female Poecilia reticulata guppies have evolved a strategy for avoiding harassment and attack by single-minded males. Josephine Brask from the University of Copenhagen leads the team d........ Read more »

  • November 9, 2012
  • 03:46 PM

Caffeine Helps Us Recognize Positive Words

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Does anyone still say "full of beans"? The phrase is supposed to describe someone who's upbeat and energetic. Maybe we can revive the expression by attaching it specifically to coffee beans, as in, "I just had a double-shot cappuccino and boy, oh boy am I full of beans!"

Caffeine lovers know the feeling of finishing a well-timed cup of coffee or tea: positive, alert, ready to go. (And maybe ready to go to the bathroom.) New research suggests that our brains also process language differently........ Read more »

  • May 21, 2013
  • 12:42 PM

Even People Without Synesthesia Find Colors in Music

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

It’s time to stop scoffing at the synesthetes: linking music to colors is totally normal. It’s not really about the notes, though. Researchers say the colors we find in music are actually the colors of the emotions the music makes us feel.

Synesthetes are people whose sensory experiences overlap; they most often link letters or numbers to certain colors. Music-color synesthesia, in which hearing music triggers the colors, is rarer. In fact, when Stephen Palmer and Karen Schloss at the........ Read more »

Palmer, S., Schloss, K., Xu, Z., & Prado-Leon, L. (2013) Music-color associations are mediated by emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1212562110  

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