Elizabeth Preston

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  • November 27, 2015
  • 03:43 PM

How to Build an Ant Bridge: Start Small

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

You know when you're out walking with a big horde of your friends and you come to a chasm you can't step across, so a bunch of you clasp each other's limbs and make yourselves into a bridge for the rest to walk on?


Eciton army ants do this. And they're not the only ants that build incredible structures out of their strong, near-weightless bodies. Weaver ants make chains between leaves by holding onto each other's waists. Fire ants cling together to form rafts and survive floodin........ Read more »

Reid CR, Lutz MJ, Powell S, Kao AB, Couzin ID, & Garnier S. (2015) Army ants dynamically adjust living bridges in response to a cost-benefit trade-off. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 26598673  

  • November 24, 2015
  • 12:10 PM

How Spider Personalities Affect Pest Control

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

They say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But what about with lazy spiders versus lively ones? When it comes to keeping pests at bay, the personalities of the spiders hunting them are important.

That's what two behavioral ecologists reported after watching bug dramas play out in a sunny hilltop alfalfa patch. Raphaël Royauté of North Dakota State University and Jonathan Pruitt of the University of Pittsburgh were studying the personalities of wolf spiders (Pardosa mi........ Read more »

  • November 20, 2015
  • 03:45 PM

Horrible Gulls Are Eating Baby Whales Alive

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Yes, it's important not to anthropomorphize other species or impose our values on them—but sometimes animals are just horrible. For example, kelp gulls. A few decades ago the birds in one part of Argentina realized that for a tasty snack, they could tear flesh from the backs of whales when they came up for air. Eventually the whales learned to protect themselves somewhat from the gulls. But now the gulls have shifted their attention to the whales' babies, and might be killing them.

Kelp........ Read more »

  • November 11, 2015
  • 10:10 AM

Monkeys Keep Their Food Clean, Sort Of

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

We all have our standards. For humans, it's the five-second rule. For macaques, it's "think twice before eating food off a pile of poop." The monkeys have several ways of keeping their food (sort of) clean. And the most fastidious macaques, it seems, are rewarded with fewer parasites.

On the Japanese island of Koshima, scientists have been studying Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) for nearly seven decades. The tiny, forested island is overrun with the monkeys, which live there naturally... Read more »

  • November 6, 2015
  • 12:07 PM

When Does an Android Become a Creepazoid?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

The uncanny valley is a place no one wants to be. Somewhere between machine and human, the theory goes, robots take a dive into creepiness. But roboticists aren't sure the valley really exists. Now, researchers in California say they have new evidence for this icky zone, and they can even draw a map of it.

Robotics professor Masahiro Mori first proposed the uncanny valley in 1970. The idea feels right—certainly some robots are charming and others, especially androids not quite succeeding ........ Read more »

  • October 30, 2015
  • 11:41 AM

Who Needs Inner Glow? Female Beetles Shine Bright to Attract Mates

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Don't let the makeup companies find out. Lady glow-worms are setting an unattainable beauty standard by using bright light to show males how fertile they are. It's a rare (in the animal world) example of females decorating themselves while their mates choose between them.

The European glow-worm, or Lampyris noctiluca, is a member of the firefly family in which the females do most of the glowing. Males are ordinary-looking beetles with brown wings. Females are much larger and don't hav........ Read more »

  • October 27, 2015
  • 11:03 PM

Mysterious Whales Seen Alive for the First Time

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Never heard of an Omura's whale? There's a good reason. Until recently, no one had laid eyes on one in the wild.

Before 2003, the Omura's whale was thought to be simply a dwarf version of another type of whale. Then Japanese scientists studying the whale's DNA and bodily characteristics decided it ought to be its own species, and named it after the late cetologist Hideo Omura. Still, all they had to work with were carcasses caught by whalers or washed up on the beach. They gleaned what........ Read more »

Cerchio, S., Andrianantenaina, B., Lindsay, A., Rekdahl, M., Andrianarivelo, N., & Rasoloarijao, T. (2015) Omura’s whales (Balaenoptera omurai) off northwest Madagascar: ecology, behaviour and conservation needs . Royal Society Open Science, 2(10), 150301. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.150301  

  • October 23, 2015
  • 12:53 PM

Finding the Highways for Migrating Birds

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

When birds set out for a long journey, they don't need roads and they certainly don't need road maps. They learn the route from others or intuit it from their DNA, an urge to point their bodies one way at a certain time of year and stop flying a few thousand miles later. To understand these journeys better, researchers mapped the most efficient routes through the world's winds. The highways that emerged weren't the shortest paths—but they did strikingly match the behavior of real bird........ Read more »

Kranstauber B, Weinzierl R, Wikelski M, & Safi K. (2015) Global aerial flyways allow efficient travelling. Ecology letters. PMID: 26477348  

  • October 14, 2015
  • 11:29 AM

Why More Firstborn Kids Need Glasses

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

It's bad enough for the first kid when a new baby shows up to steal your thunder. But the injustice is compounded when you have to start wearing glasses while your little sibling stays as cute and non-four-eyed as ever. If this sounds familiar, you're not alone: firstborn kids are more likely to be nearsighted. Part of the reason might be that they get more education.

A study in the United Kingdom and Israel found that myopia—that's nearsightedness, if you're one of those lucky people w........ Read more »

Guggenheim JA, Williams C, & UK Biobank Eye and Vision Consortium. (2015) Role of Educational Exposure in the Association Between Myopia and Birth Order. JAMA ophthalmology, 1-7. PMID: 26448589  

  • October 6, 2015
  • 10:11 AM

How Cuttlefish Stay Camouflaged On the Go

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Most camouflaged creatures try to hold still so they won't give away their ruse. But cuttlefish aren't most creatures. These masters of camouflage can change color to seamlessly match their background, and they can keep swimming while they do it.

"Cuttlefish are one of nature's fastest dynamic camouflagers," says Noam Josef, a graduate student at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. The cephalopods can change color in just one tenth of a second. They can also create different........ Read more »

Josef N, Berenshtein I, Fiorito G, Sykes AV, & Shashar N. (2015) Camouflage during movement in the European cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis). The Journal of experimental biology. PMID: 26385328  

  • October 2, 2015
  • 12:35 PM

Poop on a Stick Tests Penguins' Sense of Smell

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Who doesn't enjoy waking to a pleasant smell wafting past? Unfortunately for them, the penguins in a recent study woke up not to pancakes frying nearby, but to less appetizing aromas—for example, feces on a stick. But scientists promise the experiment taught them valuable lessons about a penguin's capabilities. Besides, they let the birds go right back to sleep.

"Research into the sense of smell in birds has a bit of a dubious history," says Gregory Cunningham, a biologist at St. John F........ Read more »

  • September 29, 2015
  • 01:40 PM

How Sheep Are like an Avalanche

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Sheep are rarely dangerous to skiers, but otherwise they have a lot in common with avalanches. That's what physicists say after mathematically modeling the ungulates' behavior (and staying well out of their path).

Francesco Ginelli, who researches complex systems at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, had already studied flocks of birds and schools of fish. But he was curious to learn what was different about the movement of sheep or other grazers. Animals like these have a simple goa... Read more »

Ginelli, F., Peruani, F., Pillot, M., Chaté, H., Theraulaz, G., & Bon, R. (2015) Intermittent collective dynamics emerge from conflicting imperatives in sheep herds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201503749. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1503749112  

  • September 22, 2015
  • 04:02 PM

Taste Mutation Helps Monkeys Enjoy Human Food

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

It's hard to be a primate who lives in northern climes and doesn't wear clothes. Resources are scarce, and you have to seize every advantage you can to stay alive and swinging. That may be why one group of monkeys has evolved an impaired tasting gene. Their worse sense of taste means they can better take advantage of the foods around them—especially the crops their human neighbors grow.

Japanese macaques, or Macaca fuscata, are also called snow monkeys. They live farther north than any........ Read more »

Suzuki-Hashido N, Hayakawa T, Matsui A, Go Y, Ishimaru Y, Misaka T, Abe K, Hirai H, Satta Y, & Imai H. (2015) Rapid Expansion of Phenylthiocarbamide Non-Tasters among Japanese Macaques. PloS one, 10(7). PMID: 26201026  

  • September 16, 2015
  • 11:26 AM

Penguins Find Each Other's Beaks Sexy

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

If Tinder for penguins existed, birds with the best beak spots would get swiped right. King penguins are attracted to the colors on each other's beaks, scientists have found—including colors we clueless humans can't see.

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) live near the bottom of the world and are monogamous for about a year at a time. They're a little smaller than emperor penguins, the ones you saw in March of the Penguins, and have a less arduous lifestyle. In the spring, they gath........ Read more »

Keddar, I., Altmeyer, S., Couchoux, C., Jouventin, P., & Dobson, F. (2015) Mate Choice and Colored Beak Spots of King Penguins. Ethology. DOI: 10.1111/eth.12419  

  • September 11, 2015
  • 10:04 AM

You Are an Expert Tweeter

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Do you tweet formally for a wide audience (and use abbrevs 4 ur peeps)? You may not realize you're doing it. But a study of  hundreds of thousands of tweets showed that Twitter users subtly tailor their language based on who's reading.

Twitter "is a single platform that serves a huge range of communicative functions," says Jacob Eisenstein, who leads a computational linguistics lab at Georgia Tech. With the same 140-character messages, a user can participate in a mass social movement or........ Read more »

Pavalanathan, U., & Eisenstein, J. (2015) AUDIENCE-MODULATED VARIATION IN ONLINE SOCIAL MEDIA. American Speech, 90(2), 187-213. DOI: 10.1215/00031283-3130324  

  • September 4, 2015
  • 11:57 AM

It's Easy to Be Fearless When You Have a Good Shell

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Aesop never penned a fable about a snail. If he had written about a certain freshwater mollusk, the moral might have been Boldness comes from a strong shell or maybe Careless snails get chomped. But because the snail and its variable shell are real, their lesson has more to do with the the weird workings of evolution.

Individual Radix balthica snails can have differently shaped shells. They also have varying "personalities," at least as far as you can measure such a thing in a mollusk......... Read more »

Ahlgren J, Chapman BB, Nilsson PA, & Brönmark C. (2015) Individual boldness is linked to protective shell shape in aquatic snails. Biology letters, 11(4), 20150029. PMID: 25904320  

  • September 1, 2015
  • 12:06 PM

Parasitized Bees May Self-Medicate with Nectar

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Mary Poppins taught us that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. A bumblebee's favorite sugary drink may already be laced with medicine. And bees seem to dose themselves with medicinal nectar when they're suffering from a gut full of parasites.

Plants manufacture many chemical compounds to defend against attackers. Some of these are familiar to humans—like capsaicin, the potent weapon made by chili pepper plants. But not every animal enjoys painful food experiences like we do........ Read more »

  • August 28, 2015
  • 12:03 PM

Chickens Help Scientists Study Dinosaur Death Pose

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

To address a long-standing mystery in paleontology, scientists went to the grocery store.

Many dinosaur fossils appear in the same pose, not so much "terrible lizard" as "terrible limbo accident." Their tails are stretched out and their necks thrown back grotesquely. But it's not clear why this is. Researchers from the University of Calgary in Canada got a fresh take on the puzzle—or, at least, a recently killed and frozen take—by using dead chickens.

"Chickens are living dinosaurs, a........ Read more »

  • August 25, 2015
  • 03:06 PM

Why Carefree Lady Fish Grow Larger Genitals

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

The history of Bahamas mosquitofish is written in their genitals. Though you'd have a hard time locating a female fish's reproductive parts, they tell a story of predators, suitors, and finding a way to regain control.

Gambusia hubbsi arrived at Andros Island, in the Bahamas, about 15,000 years ago. The little fish live in vertical, water-filled caves called blue holes. Populations separated from each other by these caves are in the process of evolving into different species, pushed by ........ Read more »

  • August 21, 2015
  • 12:49 PM

To Avoid Mosquitoes, Stop Breathing and Be Invisible

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Hungry mosquitoes use an arsenal of sensory tools to hunt you down. They sniff out the carbon dioxide you exhale; they home in on your heat signature. But a previously under-appreciated tool in the mosquito's kit is the same one you use just before slapping at it in horror: vision.

At Caltech, Floris van Breugel put mosquitoes in a wind tunnel to tease apart how they find their meals. He used Aedes aegypti, a tropical species that spreads yellow fever and other diseases. The insects wer........ Read more »

van Breugel, F., Riffell, J., Fairhall, A., & Dickinson, M. (2015) Mosquitoes Use Vision to Associate Odor Plumes with Thermal Targets. Current Biology, 25(16), 2123-2129. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.06.046  

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