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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 »
Kozlovsky, D., Branch, C., & Pravosudov, V. (2015) Problem-solving ability and response to novelty in mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli) from different elevations. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. DOI: 10.1007/s00265-015-1874-4
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
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 »
Andersson, M. (2015) Aposematism and crypsis in a rodent: antipredator defence of the Norwegian lemming. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. DOI: 10.1007/s00265-014-1868-7
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 »
Firth JA, & Sheldon BC. (2015) Experimental manipulation of avian social structure reveals segregation is carried over across contexts. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 282(1802). PMID: 25652839
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
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 »
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 »
Ziege, M., Brix, M., Schulze, M., Seidemann, A., Straskraba, S., Wenninger, S., Streit, B., Wronski, T., & Plath, M. (2015) From multifamily residences to studio apartments: shifts in burrow structures of European rabbits along a rural-to-urban gradient. Journal of Zoology. DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12207
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 »
Husak, J., Keith, A., & Wittry, B. (2015) Making Olympic lizards: the effects of specialised exercise training on lizard performance. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.114975
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 »
Stanton, D., Hart, J., Kümpel, N., Vosper, A., Nixon, S., Bruford, M., Ewen, J., & Wang, J. (2015) Enhancing knowledge of an endangered and elusive species, the okapi, using non-invasive genetic techniques. Journal of Zoology. DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12205
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
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 »
Wu J, Zhu R, Yan S, & Yang Y. (2015) Erection pattern and section-wise wettability of a honeybee's glossal hairs in nectar feeding. The Journal of experimental biology. PMID: 25573821
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
A good poker face may help you win a Hold 'Em tournament, but it won't do your memory any favors. Our faces naturally flinch into emotional expressions that match what we're seeing or hearing. These quick expressions, in addition to giving away our pocket aces, seem to help us recall things later. Using stiff cosmetic masks, scientists showed that it also works the other way: if we can't move our faces, emotional memories are harder to hang onto.
We may not realize when our facial muscle........ Read more »
Baumeister J, Rumiati RI, & Foroni F. (2014) When the mask falls: The role of facial motor resonance in memory for emotional language. Acta psychologica, 29-36. PMID: 25553341
Rainshowers are a lot more dramatic if you imagine every drop is a tiny asteroid imperiling miniature dinosaurs or sending little astronaut Ben Afflecks into space. It turns out your fantasy wouldn't be that far off, aside from that last part. Researchers have found startling similarities between asteroid craters and the fleeting indentations left by raindrops on sand.
At the University of Minnesota, physicist Xiang Cheng and three undergraduate students scrutinized what happens when a dr... Read more »
Runchen Zhao, Qianyun Zhang, Hendro Tjugito, & Xiang Cheng. (2014) Granular impact cratering by liquid drops: Understanding raindrop imprints through an analogy to asteroid strikes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. arXiv: 1407.7420v2
Facing a whole hive of bees at once can be overwhelming—even for a bee. Young honeybees sleep more after spending time in the hive than after being by themselves. They need the extra nap time, it seems, to build and maintain their learning brains.
The first surprising thing about this might be that insects sleep at all. "Since around the 1980s there is good evidence that insects show...characteristics of sleep," says Guy Bloch, who studies bee behavior at the Hebrew University of Jerusa........ Read more »
Eban-Rothschild A, & Bloch G. (2014) The colony environment modulates sleep in honey bee workers. The Journal of experimental biology. PMID: 25524987
You know how embarrassing it is to introduce yourself to someone at a party, and realize too late that you've already met? Just imagine if that person was a bear.
To prevent moments like this, San Diego Zoo conservation researcher Russell Van Horn and his colleagues asked people to try identifying bears by their faces. Actually, their motivation had nothing to do with awkward party moments. It had more to do with citizen science. Can volunteers be trusted to look at photos from a camera trap,........ Read more »
Horn, R., Zug, B., LaCombe, C., Velez-Liendo, X., & Paisley, S. (2014) Human visual identification of individual Andean bears . Wildlife Biology, 20(5), 291-299. DOI: 10.2981/wlb.00023
Even a brilliant dog may not be able to count as high as the number of feet she has. In a cheese cube counting challenge, dogs struggled to prove they have any number sense at all. Embarrassingly for the dogs, some wolves took the exact same test and passed it. This may be a hint about what dogs lost when they moved to a cushy life of domestication.
At the Wolf Science Center in Austria, Friederike Range and her colleagues raise both wolves and dogs by hand, then train them to take part i........ Read more »
Range F, Jenikejew J, Schröder I, & Virányi Z. (2014) Difference in quantity discrimination in dogs and wolves. Frontiers in psychology, 1299. PMID: 25477834
Rory Wilson recalls some nervous waterbirds.
"I've seen pelicans in Galapagos, in the port," the Swansea University biologist says. One set of birds was standing by the fish-gutting area and waiting for scraps, while another group stood out of the fray in some nearby bushes. Although both sets of pelicans acted the same, a closer look at the birds waiting for fish scraps revealed that they were quaking slightly. The tips of their wings trembled.
Wilson thinks the tremor in the pelicans... Read more »
Wilson, R., Grundy, E., Massy, R., Soltis, J., Tysse, B., Holton, M., Cai, Y., Parrott, A., Downey, L., Qasem, L.... (2014) Wild state secrets: ultra-sensitive measurement of micro-movement can reveal internal processes in animals. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12(10), 582-587. DOI: 10.1890/140068
It's tough to be sperm. Your entire existence centers on one race that you will almost definitely lose. You don't even get to take a warmup lap. Nevertheless, a glance at your competitors waiting at the starting line might give you some hints about who has an advantage. One factor that helps sperm win races is length—and not only for the reasons you might guess.
Long sperm generally have longer tails. This ought to make them faster and more powerful swimmers, which studies have confirmed........ Read more »
Clair Bennison, Nicola Hemmings, Jon Slate, & Tim Birkhead. (2014) Long sperm fertilize more eggs in a bird. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. info:/10.1098/rspb.2014.1897
Personality is written not just in the genes, but in the egg yolk. It can even come from the kind of relationship that exists between an animal’s parents. Researchers found new evidence for this when they played matchmaker for several dozen quail. Even though the eggs were taken from their parents before hatching, bird couples in committed relationships had chicks with markedly different behaviors than couples who only dated.
It’s not hard to forge a bond between Japanese quail (Coturn........ Read more »
Le Bot O, Lumineau S, de Margerie E, Pittet F, Trabalon M, & Houdelier C. (2014) Long-life partners or sex friends? Impact of parental pair bond on offspring personality. The Journal of experimental biology, 217(Pt 23), 4184-92. PMID: 25359936
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