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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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  • 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 »

  • December 2, 2011
  • 02:03 PM

Crab Eats Bacteria Grown on Hairy Arm Farms

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

When you live in near-blackness at the bottom of the ocean, you can't rely on plants to turn sunlight into food for you. The yeti crab, a pallid creature with woolly arms like an ill-conceived Muppet, eats bacteria that subsist on chemicals leaking from the seafloor. To keep things close to home, it gardens those bacteria in the lush fields of its own hairy forelegs.

Yeti crabs were first discovered in 2005, when a single representative of the species Kiwa hirsuta was dragged up fr........ Read more »

  • November 29, 2011
  • 03:33 PM

It's Harder to Dodge Sharks When Pregnant

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Although it would be nice to hatch our babies from eggs Anne Geddes-style, or deliver them while still tiny and carry them around in a pouch, humans and other placental mammals are stuck lugging their developing fetuses inside their bodies. Luckily, most humans aren't in danger of predation. But for animals that sometimes have to run (or swim) for their lives, pregnancy can be dangerous.

In a punnily titled new study ("Pregnancy is a drag"), UC Santa Cruz researcher Shawn Noren investigates ........ Read more »

  • November 25, 2011
  • 02:36 PM

Bacteria You'll Meet in a Public Restroom

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Whether you're intentionally starting your Christmas shopping or you unwittingly get swept into Macy's by a tide of deal-seekers, you may eventually have to face a public restroom. You'll be sharing it not just with your fellow shoppers, but with a whole mess of bacteria species. Luckily, researchers in Colorado have done some digging into that mess so that you can know just who you'll meet behind the "Ladies" or "Gentlemen" sign.

Public restrooms are a great place to find bacteria, as the auth........ Read more »

Flores, G., Bates, S., Knights, D., Lauber, C., Stombaugh, J., Knight, R., & Fierer, N. (2011) Microbial Biogeography of Public Restroom Surfaces. PLoS ONE, 6(11). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028132  

  • November 22, 2011
  • 06:20 PM

I'm a Synesthete. Is Something Wrong with Me?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Like victims of catastrophic head injuries, people with synesthesia often appear in neuroscience papers identified only by their initials to illustrate the mysteries of the brain. But synesthesia's not a freak occurrence. It's estimated that 2-4% of people have abnormal connections between their senses. The condition may not be an accident at all, but a trait that evolution has retained for a reason.

The authors of a new review paper, David Brang and V. S. Ramachandran, ask why synesthesia........ Read more »

  • 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 15, 2011
  • 03:46 PM

Do Voters Prefer Lower Voices?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

In apparent bad news for squeaky-voiced politicians, researchers at McMaster University say that voters prefer male candidates who speak at a lower pitch. In better news, their study involved no actual voters or candidates. So is it just laboratory lore, or is there some truth to this theory?

The study consisted of two experiments. In the first, 125 young men and women listened to a series of audio clips. The clips were taken from archived recordings of nine U.S. presidents, tweaked to creat........ Read more »

Cara C. Tigue, Diana J. Borak, Jillian J.M. O'Connor, Charles Schandl, & David R. Feinberg. (2011) Voice pitch influences voting behavior. Evolution and Human Behavior. info:/

  • November 11, 2011
  • 03:22 PM

Hell Hath No Fury like a Hermaphrodite Shrimp

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Like car wash attendants for the coral-reef crowd, Lysmata shrimp staff "cleaning stations" where fish can go to be shined up. At these stations, cleaner shrimp eat parasites and dead tissue off the bodies of their clients, while the fish repay the act by not eating the shrimp. Some cleaner shrimp species, such as L. amboinensis, live and work in monogamous, hermaphroditic couples, faithfully fertilizing each other's eggs during their off-hours. In order to arrive at these peaceful union........ Read more »

Janine W. Y. Wong, & Nico K. Michiels. (2011) Control of social monogamy through aggression in a hermaphroditic shrimp. Frontiers in Zoology. info:/

  • November 8, 2011
  • 03:54 PM

Make Mine Well-Done (with a Side of Calories)

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Unless you enjoy your beef patties uncooked and straight from the fridge, there may be more calories hiding in that hamburger than you think. Harvard researcher Rachel Carmody says that our standard method of measuring calorie content doesn't account for the ways heat changes food. Cooking adds calories, Carmody says, and she's got some Atkins-adherent mice to back her up.

The calorie numbers on food labels are calculated according to how many grams of fat, carbohydrate, and protein the foo........ Read more »

Carmody, R., Weintraub, G., & Wrangham, R. (2011) Energetic consequences of thermal and nonthermal food processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1112128108  

  • November 4, 2011
  • 05:29 PM

Which Ancient Megafauna Did We Wipe Out?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

If things had turned out differently in past millennia, modern-day animal lovers wouldn't have to fly to Kenya to go on safari. North America was once overrun with tourism-worthy animals: Aside from the iconic woolly mammoth, there were saber-toothed cats, giant sloths, and short-faced bears more than twice as massive as a grizzly. We're still not sure what happened to them, but a new study in Nature attempts to untangle the whodunnit.

Since dozens of these "megafauna" species disappeared fr........ Read more »

Lorenzen, E., Nogués-Bravo, D., Orlando, L., Weinstock, J., Binladen, J., Marske, K., Ugan, A., Borregaard, M., Gilbert, M., Nielsen, R.... (2011) Species-specific responses of Late Quaternary megafauna to climate and humans. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature10574  

  • November 1, 2011
  • 04:45 PM

Spiders Seek Balance of Work and (Fore)play

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

When picturing animals at play, you probably think of frolicking otters or wrestling tiger cubs--not arachnids aligning their copulatory organs. But University of Pittsburgh researcher Jonathan Pruitt believes that pretend sex between Anelosimus studiosus spiders is a form of play. And, like those wrestling cubs or human toddlers making block towers, the frisky young spiders are gaining skills that will help them in their adult lives. If they devote too much time to play, though, male spide........ Read more »

  • October 28, 2011
  • 05:20 PM

Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Concussions?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

To help protect our big, fragile brains from trauma during sports, why not turn to another animal that voluntarily smashes its skull into solid objects? The woodpecker hammers its beak into tree trunks twelve thousand times a day at at fifteen miles an hour. In so doing, it drills out nests, finds tasty bugs, and does not (as far as one can tell) give itself brain damage. What's its secret?

Lizhen Wang at Beihang University in Beijing led a study to find out what makes the woodpecker so resilie........ Read more »

  • 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  

  • October 21, 2011
  • 05:23 PM

Are Women Really Less Funny than Men?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Did you hear the one about how men are the funnier sex? If not, you're alone. In a recent study of California undergrads, 89% of women and 94% of men not only were familiar with the stereotype, but agreed with it. To investigate whether this supposed humor discrepancy might be a fact, the study's authors set up a tournament of New Yorker cartoon captions.

In a format you'll recognize if you've ever been sucked into the New Yorker cartoon caption contest, 32 subjects were given a series of ........ Read more »

Laura Mickes, Drew E. Walker, Julian L. Parris, Robert Mankoff, & Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld. (2011) Who’s funny: Gender stereotypes, humor production, and memory bias. Psychonomic Bulletin . info:/

  • October 18, 2011
  • 05:07 PM

Like a Hot Dryer, Climate Change Shrinks Species

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Species of the near future, like a new sweater you accidentally put through a tumble-dry cycle, may be smaller and less useful than you remember them. Organisms from polar bears to plants to farmed fish are already losing stature. As the world gets hotter and rainfall gets more sporadic, countless other species are expected to shrink, too--provided they don't disappear altogether.

The authors of a new paper in Nature Climate Change compiled data from dozens of studies on species size and climat........ Read more »

  • October 14, 2011
  • 04:18 PM

Who Needs Pheromones When You've Got a Rotten Banana?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

"The courtship chamber was placed on top of an identical chamber, with the chambers separated by muslin gauze," reports geneticist Yael Grosjean in a Methods section fit for a paperback romance. Then the "perfumed" portion of the experiment began. An aphrodisiac scent was presented on the other side of the muslin gauze. Scientists watched to see whether the subject, a male fruit fly, would be compelled to start courting his partner. To ensure that the female wouldn't influence the resu........ Read more »

Grosjean, Y., Rytz, R., Farine, J., Abuin, L., Cortot, J., Jefferis, G., & Benton, R. (2011) An olfactory receptor for food-derived odours promotes male courtship in Drosophila. Nature, 478(7368), 236-240. DOI: 10.1038/nature10428  

  • October 11, 2011
  • 04:19 PM

How the Need to Pee Helps (and Hurts) Decision Making

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

The Ig Nobel awards are an annual, tongue-in-cheek version of their namesake, recognizing researchers for ridiculous-sounding papers ("How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done") and obscure areas of study (why do certain Australian beetles continuously attempt to mate with discarded beer bottles, even as ants chew off their genitalia?). Sometimes, the awards editorialize on the year's news: Erroneous doomsday predictor Harold Camping won this year's mathematics prize "for te........ Read more »

  • September 27, 2011
  • 04:09 PM

Even Monkeys Can Tell Red from Grue

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Unsure of the difference between ochre and ecru? Mauve and maize? Don't feel bad, because there's at least one color distinction you can handle: warm versus cool colors. You may have thought it was made up by your art teacher to torment you, but the concept is biologically based and universal to cultures around the world. Even a monkey knows the difference.

Researchers led by Youping Xiao at Mount Sinai School of Medicine based their study, in part, on data from the World Color Survey. That ........ Read more »

  • September 23, 2011
  • 05:14 PM

Eat Your Grains (They're Controlling Your Genes)

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Scientists made the startling assertion this week that RNA from our food can survive digestion, sneak into our cells, and control our genes. Tiny molecular messengers made inside other species--even other kingdoms of species--work just fine in our bodies, latching onto our genetic material and causing system-wide change. Our understanding of diet and nutrition may be in for a shake-up.

A group of researchers in China has been studying microRNAs (abbreviated miRNAs). These stunted nucleotide cha........ Read more »

  • September 21, 2011
  • 12:12 PM

Are You Yawning Because Your Brain's Hot?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Everyone knows yawning is the pinkeye of social cues: powerfully contagious and not that attractive. Yet scientists aren't sure what the point of it is. Is yawning a form of communication that evolved to send some message to our companions? Or is the basis of yawning physiological, and its social contagiousness unrelated? A new paper suggests that yawning--even when triggered by seeing another person yawn--is meant to cool down overheated brains.

We're not the only species that feels compell........ Read more »

Andrew C. Gallup, & Omar Tonsi Eldakar. (2011) Contagious yawning and seasonal climate variation. Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience. info:/

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