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"Simple" is often a compliment in the human world, used to describe low-fuss dinners or closet solutions. When scientists use "simple" to describe an animal, they mean something more like, "That sac of goo has no business acting clever." An especially simple creature—a sea slug—recently demonstrated that despite its humble resources, it can learn from experience and form new hunting strategies. Smaller goo sacs, beware.
Despite its squishy stature, the sea slug Pleurobranchaea calif........ Read more »
Noboa, V., & Gillette, R. (2013) Selective prey avoidance learning in the predatory sea-slug Pleurobranchaea californica. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.079384
All it takes is an antenna on a headband. If you've got a breathless video report on the dangers of wireless internet connections, that will help your case. It doesn't take much, though, to turn an ominous hint into a real headache.
Some people consider themselves sensitive to electromagnetic fields. They report symptoms such as burning skin, tingling, nausea, dizziness, or chest pain, and they blame their malaise on nearby power lines, cell phones, or WiFi networks. A recent Slate arti........ Read more »
Witthöft, M., & Rubin, G. (2013) Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling? An experimental study on idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF). Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 74(3), 206-212. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2012.12.002
If cartoonists ever pause in their sketching to ponder human evolution, they must feel grateful to the forces that shaped our fear expression. All it takes is a pair of extra-wide eyes to show that a character is freaking out. There may be a point to this expression beyond making artists' lives easier: widening our eyes expands our peripheral vision, and might even help other people spot the cause of our alarm.
"Our lab is interested in the evolutionary origins of emotional expressions," say........ Read more »
Lee, D., Susskind, J., & Anderson, A. (2013) Social Transmission of the Sensory Benefits of Eye Widening in Fear Expressions. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464500
While male birds are singing elaborate arias and flashing their feathers, it's easy to imagine their female counterparts are unimportant actors. Duller and quieter, all a lady bird has to do is hold still and let one of these frantic performers mate with her. Yet in brown-headed cowbirds, at least, the quiet female keeps the whole society in order. Scientists discovered this by targeting a tiny portion of the female brain and frying it.
Males of the species Molothrus ater use the........ Read more »
Maguire, S., Schmidt, M., & White, D. (2013) Social Brains in Context: Lesions Targeted to the Song Control System in Female Cowbirds Affect Their Social Network. PLoS ONE, 8(5). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063239
We can knit sweaters for oiled penguins, but it's harder to protect whales and dolphins from the harm of having us as neighbors. Loud underwater sounds from activities like sonar and drilling may damage these animals' hearing and even lead to mass strandings. Though we can't chase cetaceans around with homemade earmuffs, we might be able to teach them to tune us out.
Like squinting or letting one's pupil shrink in bright light, some animals can adjust how sensitive their ears are. When we're........ Read more »
Nachtigall, P., & Supin, A. (2013) A false killer whale reduces its hearing sensitivity when a loud sound is preceded by a warning. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.085068
The Shambulance is an occasional series in which I try to find the truth about bogus or overhyped health products. Helping me keep the Shambulance on course are Steven Swoap and Daniel Lynch, both biology professors at Williams College.
Sticking a Q-tip up one’s nose is not the source of many great insights. Yet it’s how an American doctor in the early 20th century developed the theory that became modern reflexology. He would be proud—though maybe a little confused—to see people to........ Read more »
Ernst, E., Posadzki, P., & Lee, M. (2011) Reflexology: An update of a systematic review of randomised clinical trials. Maturitas, 68(2), 116-120. DOI: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2010.10.011
She's apparently a picky mater but not a picky eater. The female of a certain fly species, after mating with a male, dumps his ejaculate back out of her body and onto the ground. Then she gobbles it up. Despite new hints that this behavior may help the female choose which partner fertilizes her eggs, or keep her healthy in times of famine, scientists are still a little perplexed by it.
Various female insects, spiders, and birds are known to expel the male ejaculate from their bodies after t........ Read more »
Rodriguez-Enriquez, C., Tadeo, E., & Rull, J. (2013) Elucidating the function of ejaculate expulsion and consumption after copulation by female Euxesta bilimeki. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. DOI: 10.1007/s00265-013-1518-5
Shakespeare wasn't kidding about the "winter of our discontent." In the colder and darker months, people do more internet searches for mental health terms, from anxiety and ADHD all the way to suicide. Search patterns also promise that like a refreshed browser window, better times are due to arrive soon.
John Ayers, of the Center for Behavioral Epidemiology and Community Health in San Diego, and other researchers dove into Google Trends to explore whether certain searches vary by season. "Se........ Read more »
Ayers, J., Althouse, B., Allem, J., Rosenquist, J., & Ford, D. (2013) Seasonality in Seeking Mental Health Information on Google. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 44(5), 520-525. DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2013.01.012
A young homing pigeon must learn quickly how to find its way home from the strange neighborhoods where humans insist on leaving it. At first the bird does this by relying on its crudest instincts, returning to its roost along a route full of youthful zigzags. Over time, though, it refines its methods. A mature pigeon takes a much simpler route, because it has drawn itself a more complex map.
Homing pigeons have been subjected to all kinds of research. The latest study used GPS devices, whic........ Read more »
Schiffner, I., & Wiltschko, R. (2013) Development of the navigational system in homing pigeons: increase in complexity of the navigational map. Journal of Experimental Biology. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.085662
Close your eyes. Do you know where all your fingers and toes are? Can you pinpoint the exact edges of your body in space?
You may think your knowledge of your body is unshakeable, but a simple trick with a rubber limb can sway you. In kids, the effect is even more extreme—a finding that gives intriguing hints about how our body sense develops.
The new research relies on the "rubber hand illusion," first published in 1998. To produce this illusion, an experimenter sits across a table from........ Read more »
Cowie, D., Makin, T., & Bremner, A. (2013) Children's Responses to the Rubber-Hand Illusion Reveal Dissociable Pathways in Body Representation. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612462902
At nightfall, the Hawaiian bobtail squid digs itself out of the sand and rises into the ocean water like a spaceship taking off. It switches on its cloaking device: glowing bacteria inside its body light up, disguising the squid's silhouette against the moonlight for any predators swimming below. As sleek a vehicle as it appears, though, the bobtail may not totally outrank its microscopic crewmembers. The bacteria seem to power a clock inside the squid's body that can't function without them........ Read more »
Heath-Heckman, E., Peyer, S., Whistler, C., Apicella, M., Goldman, W., & McFall-Ngai, M. (2013) Bacterial Bioluminescence Regulates Expression of a Host Cryptochrome Gene in the Squid-Vibrio Symbiosis. mBio, 4(2). DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00167-13
Christmas arrived early this year for people who love animals carrying transmitters around. A new open-access journal called Animal Biotelemetry launched this week, and it promises to bring new tales of mind-blowing bird migrations and seals that study climate change (without exactly having volunteered for the job). Also, sharks.
Published by BioMed Central, the journal will include all kinds of research having to do with biological data gathered by instruments attached to animals. Thi........ Read more »
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 »
Cook, S., Duffy, R., & Fenn, K. (2013) Consolidation and Transfer of Learning After Observing Hand Gesture. Child Development. DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12097
A fish swims along a sandy lake bottom, carrying one of its babies in its mouth. It approaches the nesting cave of another family of fish. With a furtive "ptooey," it leaves the baby behind for adoption. For certain fish, this seems to be a common scene: giving up your young and taking on others' may be the best way to ensure your offspring grow past snack size.
The fish in question is Neolamprologus caudopunctatus, a type of cichlid (pronounced like a compliment for someone's hat).* Ju........ Read more »
Schaedelin, F., van Dongen, W., & Wagner, R. (2012) Nonrandom brood mixing suggests adoption in a colonial cichlid. Behavioral Ecology, 24(2), 540-546. DOI: 10.1093/beheco/ars195
Too many mouths to feed? Just make your babies fight each other to the death! That's a strategy some bird parents have been using since even before The Hunger Games was popular. It means the strongest chicks get stronger while the weakest ones conveniently stop showing up to the table.
One type of bird takes this family drama a step further: after letting the biggest chicks bully their siblings for a while, parents suddenly decide the runts are their favorites and begin beating up ........ Read more »
Shizuka, D., & Lyon, B. (2013) Family dynamics through time: brood reduction followed by parental compensation with aggression and favouritism. Ecology Letters, 16(3), 315-322. DOI: 10.1111/ele.12040
Forget a needle in a haystack. For that search you'd be allowed light and air—and when you held the needle in your hand at last, it wouldn't be unrecognizably coated in bone-eating worms. Looking for whale skeletons on the ocean floor is such an impossible task that no one sets out to do it on purpose. The most recent find, lying near Antarctica and crawling with previously unseen species, was a very happy accident.
A dead whale that sinks all the way to the ocean floor is called a "wha........ Read more »
Amon, D., Glover, A., Wiklund, H., Marsh, L., Linse, K., Rogers, A., & Copley, J. (2013) The discovery of a natural whale fall in the Antarctic deep sea. Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography. DOI: 10.1016/j.dsr2.2013.01.028
"The connection with the sun coming up is a misconception," asserts an article in the rural lifestyle magazine Grit. "Roosters crow all the time." Some roosters in Japan would like to loudly disagree. They've shown scientists that their crowing has everything to do with what time of day it is—something they don't even need the sun to know.
Tsuyoshi Shimmura and Takashi Yoshimura, both of Nagoya University in Japan, investigated whether a rooster's crowing is tied to its circ........ Read more »
Shimmura, T., & Yoshimura, T. (2013) Circadian clock determines the timing of rooster crowing. Current Biology, 23(6). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.015
If it were urgent, maybe we could be more forgiving. But the subject of that phone call one table away at Starbucks never seems to be vital. A bathroom renovation, maybe. Or a phrase-by-phrase recounting of a text message dialogue with an ex. If you suspect overheard phone conversations are inherently more awful than people talking face to face, you're right: research shows that these conversations reach across our espresso cups, grab our attention, and don't let go.
Psychologist Veronica Ga........ Read more »
Galván, V., Vessal, R., & Golley, M. (2013) The Effects of Cell Phone Conversations on the Attention and Memory of Bystanders. PLoS ONE, 8(3). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0058579
Without plagues, earthquakes, and unhinged criminal masterminds, the residents of Gotham might never need to put up the bat signal. Real bats, of course, are less concerned with responding to emergencies than with eating bugs. But like Batman, they do just fine—if not better than ever—in recently devastated environments. Specifically, forests that have burned down.
For five weeks in the summer of 2002, a wildfire tore through national forests in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The McNally F........ Read more »
Buchalski, M., Fontaine, J., Heady, P., Hayes, J., & Frick, W. (2013) Bat Response to Differing Fire Severity in Mixed-Conifer Forest California, USA. PLoS ONE, 8(3). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057884
There's more to a pair of rat noses than meets the eye. Like tiny, leashless dogs, rats like to sniff each other all over when they meet. Yet not all of this sniffing is aimed at gathering scents. Some of it seems to transmit messages such as "I'm in charge" or "Be cool" or "Please don't bite my face."
Rats and other animals give off odors from the "face, flanks, and anogenital region," says neuroscientist Daniel Wesson of Case Western Reserve University. So it's not surprising that these re........ Read more »
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