Not Exactly Rocket Science

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New science + good writing = Not Exactly Rocket Science. Articles on new discoveries written so that anyone can understand them.

Ed Yong
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  • March 16, 2008
  • 04:00 PM

Stealthy alligators dive, rise and roll by moving their lungs

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Crocodiles and alligators are the epitome of stealth. They can wait motionlessly for prey on the surface of the water, dive to the bottom, or roll around the length of their bodies, all without creating a single ripple.

This sneaky manoeuvrability is all the more impressive for the fact that a crocodilian can pull it off without moving its legs or tail. It's particularly difficult because a waiting crocodilian has to move slowly and methodically, and must make do without the helpful force........ Read more »

  • March 14, 2008
  • 10:00 AM

Sand dollars avoid predators by cloning themselves

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Many animals have cunning ways of hiding from predators. But the larva of the sand dollar takes that to an extreme - it avoids being spotted by splitting itself into two identical clones.
Sand dollars are members of a group of animals called echinoderms, that include sea urchins and starfish. An adult sand dollar (Dendraster excentricus) is a flat, round disc that lives a sedate life on the sea floor. Its larva, also known as a pluteus, is very different, a small, six-armed creature that floats ........ Read more »

D Vaughn, & R Strathmann. (2008) Predators Induce Cloning in Echinoderm Larvae. Science, 319(5869), 1503-1503. DOI: 10.1126/science.1151995  

  • March 11, 2008
  • 11:00 PM

How sharks, penguins and bacteria find food in the big, wide ocean

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Some of us have enough trouble finding the food we want among the ordered aisles of a supermarket. Now imagine that the supermarket itself is in the middle of a vast, featureless wasteland and is constantly on the move, and you begin to appreciate the challenges faced by animals in the open ocean.
Thriving habitats like coral reefs may present the photogenic face of the sea, but most of the world's oceans are wide expanses of emptiness. In these aquatic deserts, all life faces the same chal........ Read more »

David Sims, Emily J Southall, Nicolas E Humphries, Graeme C Hays, Corey J Bradshaw, Jonathan W Pitchford, Alex James, Mohammed Z Ahmed, Andrew S Brierley, Mark A Hindell.... (2008) Scaling laws of marine predator search behaviour. Nature, 451(7182), 1098-1102. DOI: 10.1038/nature06518  

  • March 10, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Immune snakes outrun toxic newts in evolutionary arms races

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The story of evolution is filled with antagonists, be they predators and prey, hosts and parasites, or males and females. These conflicts of interest provide the fuel for 'evolutionary arms races' - cycles of adaptation and counter-adaptation where any advantage gained by one side is rapidly neutralised by a counter-measure from the other. As the Red Queen of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass said to Alice, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same pla........ Read more »

  • March 6, 2008
  • 12:00 AM

The machine that identifies images from brain activity alone

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Modern brain-scanning technology allows us to measure a person's brain activity on the fly and visualise the various parts of their brain as they switch on and off. But imagine being able to literally see what someone else is thinking - to be able to convert measurements of brain activity into actual images.

It's a scene reminiscent of the 'operators' in The Matrix, but this technology may soon stray from the realm of science-fiction into that of science-fact. Kendrick Kay ........ Read more »

Kendrick Kay, Thomas Naselaris, Ryan J Prenger, & Jack L Gallant. (2008) Identifying natural images from human brain activity. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature06713  

  • March 4, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Moths remember what they learn as caterpillars

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly or moth is one of the most beguiling in the animal world. Both larva and adult are just stages in the life of a single animal, but are nonetheless completely separated in appearance, habitat and behaviour. The imagery associated with such change is inescapably beautiful, and as entrancing to a poet as it is to a biologist.

According to popular belief, within the pupa, the caterpillar's body is completely overhauled, broken down into a form ........ Read more »

  • March 3, 2008
  • 09:00 AM

What happens in the brain of an improvising jazz musician?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

You're lying face-up with your head surrounded by a large medical scanner. You've been told that you have to keep your head completely still. You can't look down to see your hands and you can't hear very much beyond the background hum of the machine. A perfect time for some improvisational jazz then....

This was the challenge posed to six professional jazz musicians by Charles Limb and Allen Braun from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The........ Read more »

  • March 2, 2008
  • 05:00 PM

Japanese moths hit by male-killing virus

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Male insects have a tough time of it. Aside from the usual threats of predators, competitors and the odd hungry female, many are plagued by discriminatory parasites intent on killing them, while leaving their female peers unharmed. These "male-killers" are incredibly successful and infect a wide range of insects, who are themselves a very successful group. One of these killers, a bacteria known as Wolbachia, may well be the world's most successful parasite.

The male-killers ar........ Read more »

Kazuko Nakanishi, Mayu Hoshino, Madoka Nakai, & Yasuhisa Kunimi. (2008) Novel RNA sequences associated with late male killing in Homona magnanima. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, -1(-1), -1--1. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0013  

  • March 2, 2008
  • 05:00 PM

Effects of invading island rats ripple across land and sea

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Humans have explored the entire face of the planet, but we haven't done so alone. Animals and plants came along for the ride, some as passengers and other as stowaways. Today, these hitchhikers pose one of the greatest threats to the planet's biodiversity, by ousting and outcompeting local species.

Islands are particularly vulnerable to invaders. Cut off from the mainland, island-dwellers often evolve in the absence of predators and competitors, and are prone to developing traits tha........ Read more »

  • March 2, 2008
  • 05:00 PM

Snow-making bacteria are everywhere

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The next time you watch a snowfall, just think that among the falling flakes are some that house bacteria at their core. It's a well known fact that water freezes at 0°C, but it only does so without assistance at -40°C or colder. At higher temperatures, it needs help and relies on microscopic particles to provide a core around which water molecules can clump and crystallise. These particles act as seeds for condensation and they are rather dramatically known as "ice nucleator........ Read more »

B Christner, C E Morris, C M Foreman, R Cai, & D C Sands. (2008) Ubiquity of Biological Ice Nucleators in Snowfall. Science, 319(5867), 1214-1214. DOI: 10.1126/science.1149757  

  • February 19, 2008
  • 09:00 PM

Tiny molecules drove the evolution of the vertebrates

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The spinal column that runs down your back is an identity badge that signifies your membership among the vertebrates - animals with backbones. Vertebrates have arguably the most complex bodies and genomes of any animal group and certainly, our lineage has come a long way from its last common ancestor.
The closest evolutionary cousins of the

... Read more »

A Heimberg, L F Sempere, V N Moy, P C Donoghue, & K J Peterson. (2008) MicroRNAs and the advent of vertebrate morphological complexity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0712259105  

  • February 16, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Testing, not studying, makes for strong long-term memories

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

It’s a familiar scene - the wee hours of the morning are ticking away and your head is bent over a stack of notes, desperately trying to cram as much knowledge into your head before the test in the morning.
Because of the way our education system works, this process of hard studying has become almost

... Read more »

  • February 15, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Earliest bat shows flight developed before echolocation

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Their heads and bodies of bats have amassed an extraordinary array of adaptations that have make them lords of the night sky. Today, the thousand-plus types of bats make up a fifth of living mammal species. Richard Dawkins once described the evolution of bats as “one of the most enthralling stories in all natural history”

... Read more »

  • February 12, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Third cousin couples have the most children and grandchildren

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Marriage between closely related cousins is a heavy taboo in many cultures and its critics often cite the higher risk of genetic diseases associated with inbreeding. That risk is certainly apparent for very close relatives, but a new study from Iceland shows that very distant relatives don’t have it easy either. In the long run,

... Read more »

A Helgason, S Palsson, D Guthbjartsson, t Kristjansson, & K Stefansson. (2008) An Association Between the Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples. Science, 319(5864), 813-816. DOI: 10.1126/science.1150232  

  • January 30, 2008
  • 08:00 AM

Malawi cichlids - how aggressive males create diversity

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Certain groups of animals show a remarkable capacity for quickly evolving into new species to seize control of unexploited niches in the environment. And among these ecological opportunists, there are few better examples than the cichlids, a group of freshwater fishes that are one of the most varied group of back-boned animals on the planet.

... Read more »

Michael Pauers, Joshua M Kapfer, Christopher E Fendos, & Craig S Berg. (2008) Aggressive biases towards similarly coloured males in Lake Malawi cichlid fishes. Biology Letters, -1(-1), -1--1. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0581  

  • January 25, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Averaging photos creates infallible face recognition tool

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Compare a photo of yourself all cleaned up for a night out with another one first thing the next morning, and you’ll begin to appreciate the problems that people working on face recognition software encounter.
While some unfeasibly lucky people look great from all angles, most of us have to contend with a lottery of lighting

... Read more »

R Jenkins, & A Burton. (2008) 100% Accuracy in Automatic Face Recognition. Science, 319(5862), 435-435. DOI: 10.1126/science.1149656  

  • January 21, 2008
  • 08:04 AM

Sex runs hot and cold – why does temperature control the gender of Jacky dragons?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Among Jacky dragons, females are both hot and cool, while males are merely luke-warm. For this small Australian lizard, sex is a question of temperature. If its eggs are incubated at low temperatures (23-26ºC) or high ones (30-33ºC), they all hatch as females; anywhere in the idle, and both sexes are born.
This strategy - known

... Read more »

  • January 19, 2008
  • 05:00 PM

Canny breeding creates vitamin A-rich maize without genetic modification

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

On Thursday, I wrote about a way of genetically modifying carrots to turn them into rich sources of calcium. The method could be more widely used in vegetables to help reduce nutritional deficiencies, but it risks raising the ire of the anti-GM environmentalist camp. But there is another way of altering the genes of crop

... Read more »

C Harjes, T R Rocheford, L Bai, T P Brutnell, C B Kandianis, S G Sowinski, A E Stapleton, R Vallabhaneni, M Williams, E T Wurtzel.... (2008) Natural Genetic Variation in Lycopene Epsilon Cyclase Tapped for Maize Biofortification. Science, 319(5861), 330-333. DOI: 10.1126/science.1150255  

  • January 7, 2008
  • 08:00 PM

Cross-breeding restores sight to blind cavefish

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In the caves of Mexico lives a fish which proves that a million years of evolution can be undone with a bit of clever breeding.
The blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) is a sightless version of a popular aquarium species, the Mexican tetra. They live in 29 deep caves scattered throughout Mexico, which their sighted ancestors colonised

... Read more »

Richard Borowsky. (2008) Restoring sight in blind cavefish. Current Biology, 18(1).

  • January 5, 2008
  • 12:24 PM

Newborn babies have a preference for the way living things move

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

From an animal’s point of view, the most important things in the world around it are arguably other animals. They provide mates, food, danger and companionship, so as an animal gazes upon its surroundings, it pays for it to be able to accurately discern the movements of other animals. Humans are no exception and new

... Read more »

F Simion, L Regolin, & H Bulf. (2008) A predisposition for biological motion in the newborn baby. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0707021105  

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