“You are so cute I could just eat you up!”
We’ve all experienced that urge to squeeze something that is really, really cute. Think tiny bunnies, baby ducks, a pudgy baby’s cheeks. In the Philippines they even have a word for it:
gigil n. the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute.
To make up for this lack in the English language, two psychology grad students at Yale came up with their own name for the urge: cute aggression. [Researchers' disclaimer: "When we refer to 'aggression' here, we do not at all mean to say that any actual harm is intended towards the cute object."]
This video shows Koshik, a 22-year-old male Asian elephant, imitating Korean words by putting his trunk in his mouth to modulate his sound. A study of Koshik’s vocalizations (he can imitate five words) appears in the latest issue of Current Biology. The researchers hypothesize that spending seven of his formative years as the only elephant at Everland, a South Korean theme park, led Koshik to mimic the speech of the animals he did spend time with: humans.
There’s just one other well-known case of a “talking” elephant, Batyr, who lived in a Kazakhstan zoo, also isolated from others of his species. The researchers think that an attempt at social bonding may also be the reason that other animals, ranging from parrots to mammals like Hoover, the talking seal, and beluga whales, mimic the sounds of human speech. Koshik probably doesn’t mean the words he says: His vocabulary consists of commands frequently given to him by trainers, but while he has learned to obey them, he doesn’t seem perturbed if the humans around him don’t comply with his orders, one researcher told told Wired Science.
Three-dimensional model of an ancient whale skull.
What’s the News: Scientists have long held that archaeocetes, the precursors to modern cetaceans, had symmetrical skulls like most other mammals. Whale skulls only became asymmetrical as certain species evolved echolocation to hunt for food. But it turns out that archaeocetes actually had skewed skulls, which likely allowed the whales to hear better underwater, according a new study published in the journal PNAS.
What’s the News: Biologists have discovered an eel so bizarre that they didn’t initially know if it was an eel or some other kind of fish. The strange creature, dubbed Protoanguilla palau after a researcher found it in an undersea cavern off the coast of Palau, has very few of the anatomic features of modern eels, but displays many hallmarks of primitive eels from the Mesozoic era. It appears that the eel’s last common ancestor with any other living creature existed 200 million years ago, the researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Heliconius numata (top) mimics the wing
pattern of Melinaea mneme (bottom).
What’s the News: A single species of butterfly in the Amazon is able to copy the wing patterns of several neighboring species to avoid being eaten by hungry birds—a wide-ranging talent that has long perplexed evolutionary biologists. Now, an international team of scientists studying the mimicking butterfly Heliconius numata has finally solved this puzzle that plagued even Charles Darwin.
Writing in the journal Nature, researchers found that a specific supergene—a cluster of genes that is passed on to offspring as one big chunk—controls the different elements of wing patterns, allowing related butterflies to display distinct markings despite having the same DNA. “These butterflies are the ‘transformers’ of the insect world,” lead researcher Mathieu Joron said in a prepared statement. “But instead of being able to turn from a car into a robot with the flick of switch, a single genetic switch allows these insects to morph into several different mimetic forms.”
What’s the News: In the squid world, the body size of male spear squid determines the mating strategies they use. Small male squid, which have no chance of physically competing with their larger rivals, must try to get with the females of the species on the sly. Now, researchers in Tokyo have learned that this difference in mating behavior has resulted in the evolution of divergent sperm types, though perhaps not in the way you’d think: diminutive male squid actually produce larger sperm than big male squid.
Researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina have now learned that Nazca boobies perpetuate a “cycle of violence”: bullied chicks tend to become bullies and pass on the pain. When parent birds leave their nests to eat, baby boobies are often visited by sexually and physically abusive non-breeding adults; the chicks, when grown, are more likely to abuse unrelated chicks. “The link we found indicates that nestling experience, and not genetics, influences adult behaviour,” lead researcher David Anderson told BBC.
The marsh-loving song sparrow uses its beak to stay cool.
What’s the News: Scientists have long known that the size and shape of a bird’s beak is largely dependent on its diet. A hummingbird’s long, thin beak, for example, allows it to reach deep down into a tubular flower to get nectar. But in a new study in the journal Ecography, scientists have found that birds in warm climates have evolved beaks larger than their cooler-climate counterparts as a means of staying cool (birds, like most animals, don’t sweat). The new study adds weight to past research suggesting the same thing.
Researchers at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks have discovered a way to induce hibernation in arctic ground squirrels—by administering a substance that stimulates the brain receptors of adenosine, a molecule involved in slowing nerve cell activity. Induced hibernation could someday be used to preserve the brain functions of human stroke victims, though that’s still a ways off as the current technique only works on the arctic ground squirrels during hibernation season.
Image: Flickr/Threat to Democracy
Michael Zasloff, a researcher at the Georgetown University Medical Center, has discovered that bottlenose dolphins have “miraculous” healing powers: within several weeks they can heal from basketball-sized injuries, without any lasting disfigurements. Moreover, the injuries, presumably from clashes with sharks, don’t seem to cause the animals any apparent pain and don’t become visibly infected. Several abilities seem to be working together to promote healing; for example, Zasloff hypothesizes that bottlenose dolphins prevent bleeding to death by restricting blood flow to certain areas of their bodies, giving large gashes time to clot.
[Read more (and see pictures) at LiveScience.]