Tag: senses

Scent-Gland Bacteria Help Hyenas Identify Friends, Strangers, and Pregnant Females

By Joseph Castro | July 8, 2011 12:53 pm

spacing is important

Spotted hyenas are sometimes portrayed as cowardly scavengers, always laughing, always up to some kind of mischief. If you’ve ever seen Disney’s The Lion King, then you may already have that image in your head. Here in the non-Disney universe, spotted hyenas are actually fascinating creatures. For example, they hang out in matriarchal “clans,” and the females, with their aggressive behavior and pseudo-penises (large clitorises), are very difficult to tell apart from the males. But it turns out that spotted hyenas may be even stranger than we initially thought: they may use bacteria to help communicate with one another, suggests Michigan State University zoologist Kay E. Holekamp in a recent, amusing New York Times blog post.

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Henry the Seal Can Discern Shapes Using Just His Whiskers

By Patrick Morgan | May 12, 2011 5:22 pm

Blindfolded and fitted with noise-canceling headphones, this seal might better fit a marine-creature hostage crisis than a scientific study. In reality, it’s making history by showing for the first time that the whiskers of harbor seals are so sensitive that they can discern the shapes of objects by the ripples they make. Marine biologists have known for a while that seals use their whiskers to find fish in dark, murky waters, but as lead researcher Wolf Hanke told LiveScience, whiskers had “never been shown to analyze things” beyond that. Being able to discern shape and size means that seals may use their whiskers to pick out the fattest fish.

Henry, a 12-year-old harbor seal, was plopped into an open-air pool in a Cologne zoo to put his whiskers to the test. Researchers blindfolded and placed headphones on him so that he could only use his whiskers to sense underwater objects. In the pool, the researchers placed a plastic box containing an assortment of variably-shaped paddles. Because they trained Henry to touch his nose to a small plastic sphere whenever he thought a paddle’s ripples were different from a control paddle’s ripples, the scientists were able to test whether the seal could discriminate between different shapes and sizes.

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Mmm, These Vibrating Molecules Smell Wonderful

By Patrick Morgan | February 15, 2011 12:48 pm

The humble fruit fly is overturning the science of smell. Using the fruit fly’s sensitive schnoz, scientists now have evidence that the sense of smell isn’t only a matter of molecular shape–it might also have something to do with how the molecules entering the nose vibrate.

Previously, scientists thought that we perceive a particular smell when an olfactory molecule’s shape matches the shape of receptors in our nose. The molecule enters the receptor, and so we perceive the particular smell triggered by that lock-and-key scenario. But in 1996, MIT Biophysicist Luca Turin suggested that the patterns in which molecules vibrate are what control odor.

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The Creepy Robot That Hears You Breathing Through a Wall

By Patrick Morgan | February 8, 2011 10:56 am

The robotic ears of the U.S. Army just got an upgrade: now robots don’t have to be right next to a wall to detect humans breathing on the other side.

Created by the California company TiaLinx, the Cougar20-H is a radar-using robot that looks like a small blackboard on wheels. As Wired reports:

The … Cougar20-H “can … be remotely programmed at multiple way points to scan the desired premise in a multi-story building and provide its layout,” TiaLinx boasted.

The remote-controlled robot could save lives as troops battle insurgents in Afghanistan and other regions because it allows them to ‘see’ who’s inside a building before they physically enter. And there’s the possibility that it could be used to fight human trafficking or to help with rescue missions.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Your Morning Toothpaste: Now With Weather Reports!

By Jennifer Welsh | January 6, 2011 2:59 pm

Mmmm… it tastes like rain today. Or at least this toothpaste tastes like it’s going to rain today.

The toothpaste in question was created by the MIT Media lab as your own personal early morning weather station–it changes flavors based on the day’s forecast. So when you’re half asleep and drooling white toothpaste foam out of your mouth onto your clean shirt, at least you know which jacket you should bring to cover that toothpaste stain.

Researchers Henry Holtzman and David Carr designed the toothpaste, which mixes different flavors to alert you to the weather outside. More cinnamon means it will be warmer, more mint means colder, and a blue stripe means it will rain. Brilliant, guys, but who wants to have mint and cinnamon toothpaste mixed together? That’s just wrong.

A computer checks the weather, then regulates the amounts of each of the toothpaste components. Every day is a flavor adventure! (Unless you live in Los Angeles.) Both this toothpaste and the “proverbial wallet” the team invented that made headlines a few weeks ago belong to a new category of “super-mechanical” products, which take something mundane and give it dynamic data-analyzing abilities. But would we use it if it shows up on the shelves?

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Image: MIT Media lab

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

What Does Your City Smell Like? DARPA Wants to Know

By Jennifer Welsh | November 12, 2010 1:05 pm

gas-maskHow could the government know about a chemical attack before it wreaks havoc? By smelling it.

But the problem is, to detect an abnormal stench, the government first needs to know the city’s normal aroma, to have an idea of its “chemical profile.” To that effect, DARPA just released a solicitation looking for suggestions on how to best build chemical composition maps of major United States cities. Spencer Ackerman over at Wired’s Danger Room t0ok a look at the solicitation and explained what DARPA is looking for:

The data Darpa wants collected will include “chemical, meteorological and topographical data” from at least 10 “local urban sources,” including “residences, gasoline stations, restaurants and dry cleaning stores that have particular patterns of emissions throughout the day.”

Then, subsequent chemical readings from the area could be compared to the “map” to check for abnormal chemicals in the air. Since many chemicals that can be used in a terrorist attacks are normally found around our cities, it’s difficult to just screen for them without having an idea of their baseline levels, explains Wired:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Crime & Punishment

Beware, Bomb-Makers: This Worm Has Your Number

By Eliza Strickland | November 5, 2010 2:41 pm

C-elegansBy Rose Eveleth

Bomb squads have long used metal detectors, x-ray machines, and dogs to uncover threats. Without these tools, authorities may not have intercepted some of the thirteen homemade explosives that froze Greece’s outgoing mail earlier this week. But soon they may have a new tool to help find the bad guys and their bombs: microscopic worms.

In a paper published last month, researchers at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization described the effectiveness of Caenorhabditis elegans–a millimeter-long, mud-loving nematode–in detecting chemicals associated with explosives. If they’re right, bomb detection could get cheaper and easier. But not everyone is convinced.

This nematodes isn’t the first organism investigated for its keen sense of smell. Dogs, rats, pigs, cows, insects, bacteria, and even plants have been used to find explosives. So far, nothing has worked as well as the trusty canine snout.

But according to lead researcher Stephen Trowell, a machine that uses his worms could surpass all these in sensitivity. “All signs are that it’s as good as it gets,” he said.

The nematodes smell chemicals like nitroglyceride and cyclohexanone—both found in the air around homemade C4 explosives—through tiny scent organs on the sides of their mouths called amphids. Each amphid has twelve different kinds of receptors that relay signals to the brain.

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AAAAIIEEE! Tennis Players' Grunts May Help Their Game

By Eliza Strickland | October 4, 2010 11:34 am

SharapovaThose unearthly howls, shrieks, and grunts that burst out of tennis players’ mouths may do more than just fill the silence of tennis stadiums. A new study suggests that a player’s grunt might slow down the response time of her opponent, giving the grunter an advantage.

For the study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers asked students to watch videos of a tennis player hitting a ball; some shots were accompanied by a soft grunt, others were performed in silence. For each shot, the student had to indicate which side of the court the ball would land on by hitting a keyboard key.

According to the study, “The results were unequivocal: The presence of an extraneous sound interfered with a participants’ performance, making their responses both slower and less accurate.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?

"Kids Can Be So Cruel" Science: Squinting Kids Get Fewer Party Invites

By Joseph Calamia | August 20, 2010 12:43 pm

bdayWhom would you invite to your birthday party? If you’re a six-year-old, probably not the kid with an eye disorder.

Shown pictures of other children and asked to pick birthday party attendees, six- to eight-year-olds did not care about gender or shirt color with any statistical significance. But they did care if a possible invitee had strabismus–a condition when a child’s eyes don’t line up while focusing, often resulting in crossed eyes or squinting. This heart-breaker brought to you by the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

The photographs included identical twins: children in four pairs of pictures looked the same, except for their digitally altered shirt colors and eyes. Given four chances to pick children with strabismus, 18 of 48 children did not select any child with the disorder. None picked the child with the eye disorder on all four opportunities.

The researchers say the study indicates that parents may want to consider corrective surgery before children with strabismus turn six–apparently the age when kids take a turn for the shallow.

Younger birthday boys and girls appear to care less about what their invitees eyes looked like: Of 31 children between the ages of four and six, the researchers found that 9 children picked kids with strabismus three or four times. Only one meanie didn’t pick any children with an eye disorder.

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Image: flickr / Spojeni

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