City Rabbits, like Humans, Live in Smaller Homes

By Elizabeth Preston | January 30, 2015 10:30 am

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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, build their homes in a similar way—and since these animals are disappearing in the countryside, understanding their urban planning strategy matters to humans trying to conserve them.

Hunting, habitat loss, and disease have driven down populations of European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in the countrysides of western Europe. Yet rabbit populations in some German cities are, well, hopping. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Ecology

Athletic Training Makes Lizards Better Runners

By Elizabeth Preston | January 27, 2015 9:27 am

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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 green anole lizard, or Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis), is a common laboratory species. Basic rules of its biology—for example, how it responds to exercise—ought to apply to other vertebrates, such as humans. In the past, scientists have successfully used exercise to increase endurance in frogs, birds, alligators and crocodiles. But the same efforts with lizards have been inconclusive.

Jerry Husak, a biologist at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, studies lizards with the help of undergraduate researchers. He and his students decided to try creating “Olympic lizards.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: exercise, sports, top posts, walking
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Evolution

Dung DNA Gives Clues to the Shy Okapi’s Lifestyle

By Elizabeth Preston | January 23, 2015 9:43 am

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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, chewing tree leaves in privacy. No one in the Western world knew the animal existed until the 20th century.

“One of the great things about studying okapi was that there was so little known about them in advance,” says David Stanton, a PhD student at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. “So in this sense, everything that we found out was a surprise.” Read More

Polar Bears Leave Messages in Their Footprints

By Elizabeth Preston | January 21, 2015 9:40 am

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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 rocks, for example. These objects can become like bulletin boards for bear society. But the icy home of polar bears doesn’t include many vertical objects to rub up on.

In the past, people have noticed that polar bears sometimes sniff the footprints of other bears. Could there be chemical information hidden in the giants’ tracks?

Read More

Robot Learns to Cook from YouTube Videos

By Elizabeth Preston | January 16, 2015 8:22 am

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How’s this for a dystopian future: You finally receive your personal robot assistant, delivered to your door by Amazon drone. You unpack the shiny new machine, dust off the Styrofoam peanuts, and charge up the batteries. Then you switch it on and lead it to the kitchen so it can cook you dinner. The robot points its camera at you, waiting. Suddenly you realize in horror that your assistant doesn’t know how to cook, either—you’re supposed to teach it.

To prevent this nightmare dinnertime scenario, computer scientists are working on a robot that can teach itself to cook. It learns by watching YouTube videos.

This is much harder for a robot than it is for you, no matter how inept a cook you are. Imagine a mind that’s stumped by CAPTCHAs (“Letters with a squiggle through them? I’m out!”) trying to follow a video host who’s chatting and chopping at the same time. Read More

Bees Drink with Expandable Mop Tongues

By Elizabeth Preston | January 13, 2015 10:30 am

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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 to see how they drink nectar. The researchers combined high-speed photography with images from a scanning electron microscope, which revealed the bees’ intricately built mouthparts. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bees, cats and dogs, physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Physics

Memo to Carmakers: This Fish Is a Bad Model

By Elizabeth Preston | January 9, 2015 9:09 am

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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 interesting feature. Researchers in the last decade claimed that the boxfish is also unusually stable. Because of how water flows over its body and creates vortices, they said, small deviations from its course will self-correct. Engineers who modeled a robot after the boxfish cited this stability as a reason.

In their lives among the corals, boxfish don’t need to be especially fast. Read More

Stiff Masks Block Emotional Memories

By Elizabeth Preston | January 6, 2015 9:05 am

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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 muscles are mimicking the emotions around us. To stop it from happening, scientists have tried making people hold a pen between their teeth, for example. Forced into a constant grimace this way, subjects had a harder time recognizing emotional words and facial expressions. In other research, people read emotionally negative sentences more slowly after getting a Botox injection in their frown lines.

At SISSA, a research institution in Trieste, Italy, graduate student Jenny-Charlotte Baumeister took facial freezing a step further. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: brains, language, top posts, Uncategorized

Raindrops Are like Tiny Asteroid Strikes

By Elizabeth Preston | January 2, 2015 9:32 am

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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 drop of water hits a granular surface. Because of all the variables in this kind of collision—the viscosity of the liquid, how much the drop squishes when it hits the surface, how the liquid and the grains interact—the researchers call it “notoriously complicated.”

Cheng and his students used high-speed photography and laser measurements to observe falling water drops and the miniature craters they made. Read More

Time in the Hive Makes Bees Exhausted

By Elizabeth Preston | December 30, 2014 10:33 am

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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 Jerusalem. Yes, their brains are tiny and organized differently from ours. But they rest in a similar way. And just as sleeping helps us sort through the new things we’ve learned each day, there’s evidence that sleep in bees and fruit flies is also tied up with memory and learning, Bloch says.

When a young worker honeybee emerges into the hive, she’s thrust into a social life with countless rules to learn. She finds herself surrounded by waving antennae, fuzzy bodies squeezing past each other, and a flurry of message-bearing chemicals. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bees, brains, education, top posts
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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.
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