Why Some Bugs Are Attracted to the Wrong Species

By Elizabeth Preston | May 20, 2015 9:18 am

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The squash bug mating orgies that biologist Christine Miller began noticing in gardens around Gainesville were nothing unusual. Dozens of insects were crowded together, the petite males along with the bulkier females, to search for partners. The unusual thing was that some males were copulating with females of the wrong species—apparently, they found them irresistible.

When Jen Hamel arrived at Miller’s University of Florida lab to do her postdoctoral research, she took up the mystery of the swinging squash bugs.

Although they’re related, the two insect species don’t seem to have viable offspring together. And mating with the wrong species can be more than just a waste of time. “There is potentially a big waste of energy for a female,” Hamel says, if she lays eggs that aren’t fertilized because she’s been dallying with the wrong males. The insects could also miss out on opportunities to mate with the right partners, and females might risk damage to their genitalia or reproductive tracts. So what are these bugs doing together? Read More

Which Baby Animals Look Cute? It May Be No Accident

By Elizabeth Preston | May 15, 2015 10:36 am
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A. Do you want to cuddle me?

Sure, there are faces only a mother could love. And then there are faces no mother loves, because they belong to animals that fend for themselves from birth. The babies we find cutest—no matter what species they are—may have evolved to look that way because they need a parent’s attention. That means even a crocodile can tug on our heartstrings.

Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist, proposed in the mid-20th century that human infants are cute for a reason. He said evolution has created adorable babies so that their parents will take care of them. When we see a face with big eyes, a big head, and a tiny nose and mouth, we can’t help but feel affection, he argued. It’s easy to look at a wide-eyed puppy or kitten and imagine that other animals have evolved in the same way. Read More

Don’t Trust Doctor Google

By Elizabeth Preston | May 12, 2015 10:23 am
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The doctor definitely can’t help you with your weird face.

If you’ve ever waited until no one was nearby, then furtively typed medical symptoms into your browser’s search box, you’re not alone. Looking for health information was the third most popular online activity in a 2011 Pew report. But how well does it work? If you’re Googling your symptoms, not that well.

“Current search engines are doing a good job in answering clearly formulated medical queries,” says Guido Zuccon, who studies information retrieval at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Search for “celiac disease” or “psoriasis” and you’ll likely find good information right at the top of the page.

The problem, Zuccon says, is that the people Googling their symptoms often have little or no medical knowledge. This means they don’t know what search terms to start with. Going down the wrong internet trail could lead these searchers to inaccurate information, or make them needlessly anxious about diseases they don’t have (a condition dubbed “cyberchondria”).

Zuccon and his colleagues wanted to know how search engines handle the kinds of searches that those of us without medical degrees often do: whispering our symptoms, as best we can describe them, into the ear of Dr. Google. Read More

To Zoom In, Bats Say “Ahh!”

By Elizabeth Preston | May 8, 2015 3:01 pm

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In the future when touch screens are obsolete and we control our devices by facial gesture, maybe we’ll zoom in and out the same way a bat does it. We’ll open our mouths wide to narrow our field of focus. To see the bigger picture, we’ll purse our lips tightly. But while we’ll only be reading the news or shopping online, bats are operating one of the coolest sensory systems owned by a mammal.

An Italian priest, Lazzaro Spallanzani, sent blindfolded bats through obstacle courses in the late 18th century and concluded that they seemed to use sound to navigate. But no one figured out how it worked for another century and a half. The 1835 British Cyclopaedia of Natural History attributed bats’ navigational skills, a bit vaguely, to “delicacy of sensation.”

Now we know bats make sounds that are too high for us to hear. They navigate and search for food by listening to how those sound waves bounce back. They can adjust the length and rate of their sound pulses to gather exactly the information they need about their environments. And, researchers in Israel say, bats can widen or narrow their field of view by simply stretching out their mouths. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Physics, Senses

3 Reasons Octopus Locomotion Is the Weirdest

By Elizabeth Preston | May 5, 2015 11:38 am

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Of course there’s nothing ordinary about an octopus. It’s the animal that showed us spinelessness doesn’t have to mean a lack of smarts. But when researchers brought some octopuses into the lab to study exactly how the animals move, their findings were bizarre—both predictably and unpredictably.

Scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem studied nine common octopuses (Octopus vulgaris) that fishers had scooped out of the ocean for them. Once the animals got comfortable in the lab, the scientists put them one at a time into a tank with a transparent floor. They used cameras underneath and next to the tank to meticulously track how the invertebrates crawled.

The footage revealed three ways that octopuses are weird. Read More

Lizards in Long-Term Relationships Can Skip the Foreplay

By Elizabeth Preston | May 1, 2015 9:56 am

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Why would two stubby-legged, blue-tongued Australian reptiles want to stay together not just for a mating season, but for decades? A 31-year study of the reptiles has suggested an answer. While newly formed couples are still getting to know each other, lizards in long-term relationships can start mating earlier in the season. And dispensing with the foreplay might give them a reproductive advantage over their casually dating neighbors.

Tiliqua rugosa is a species of blue-tongued skink that’s also called the shingleback, bobtail, pinecone, or sleepy lizard. People may have had time to give the lizards so many names because they don’t move very quickly. In fact they seem prepackaged for predators, with their sausage bodies and tiny appendages. Aside from their armored skin, the only thing going for them is that their tails sort of look like their heads, which might confuse other animals.

What’s more remarkable about the sleepy lizard is its commitment to monogamy. Read More

Snowshoe Hares Pass Down Stress to Multiple Future Generations

By Elizabeth Preston | April 28, 2015 10:35 am

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It’s hard to be a showshoe hare. The northern animals are in a constant race for survival with their predators, always cycling between population booms and busts. In hard years, hares are understandably stressed. And that stress can leave its signature not just on those animals, but on several future generations.

When life is good, populations of showshoe hares (Lepus americanus) can roughly double every year. But the hare’s predators—lynx, foxes, coyotes—also increase in numbers as their food multiplies. Then the hare population crashes: nearly every animal becomes a meal. Predators also lose numbers as their food disappears. This creates a constant cycle of about 8 to 10 years, with predator populations lagging a year or two behind hares.

This repeating story has one mysterious chapter, though. After hares and their hunters have both crashed, the hares don’t hop back right away. Their numbers stay low for another 2 to 5 years, even though a new generation of hares is born every year. The varying length of this slump is an “enigma,” writes Pennsylvania State University ecologist Michael Sheriff. Read More

Marmoset Parents Teach Their Kids Not to Interrupt

By Elizabeth Preston | April 24, 2015 8:51 am

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No one expects a human infant to slide into the world with a good grasp of grammar. Marmosets, another kind of chatty primate, are also poor conversationalists when they’re young. But their parents seem to teach them how it’s done. Young marmosets learn the cardinal rule of having a conversation: don’t interrupt. And if they mess up, their parents give them the silent treatment.

Common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) live in large family groups in the forests of Brazil. “Because marmosets live in dense forests and are very small, it is difficult for them to maintain visual contact,” says Cory Miller, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. So the little monkeys call to each other often, using a variety of yelps, trills, and whistles.

“These vocal exchanges are essentially social interactions,” Miller says. So there are rules about how they should go, just as there are unwritten rules in human social interaction—say please and thank you, don’t stand too close, use your indoor voice. Read More

These Adorable Rodents Are Democratic Snugglers

By Elizabeth Preston | April 21, 2015 3:17 pm

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If you’re a small animal in a cold environment, being standoffish is a bad survival strategy. That’s why animals of many kinds huddle for warmth. They put their furred or feathered bodies right up against their neighbors’ and conserve energy that they would otherwise spend heating themselves.

One especially adorable huddler is the degu (Octodon degus), a rodent that lives in Chile and has a tail like a paintbrush. As temperatures drop, degus clump into cuddling groups to keep warm. A new study finds that degu huddles have no leaders: the animals are perfectly self-organized. In fact, they’re so self-organized that they resemble water crystallizing into ice. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Evolution, Physics

Why You’re More Likely to See a Coyote That’s Sick

By Elizabeth Preston | April 17, 2015 9:44 am

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Run-ins are on the rise between coyotes and city-dwelling humans, and scientists aren’t sure why. Now researchers in Alberta think they’ve found a piece of the puzzle. Coyotes are more likely to creep into human spaces if they’re unhealthy.

Conflict between humans and coyotes has increased during the last 20 years, write University of Alberta graduate student Maureen Murray and her coauthors. Yet coyotes were expanding their range for decades before that. They’ve spread to inhabit nearly every part of North America. What makes some coyotes today march downtown and ride the light rail while others stay in a city’s fringes and parks, never meeting a person?

To explore the question, the researchers captured 21 wild coyotes in Edmonton, Alberta over the course of three years. They fitted the animals with GPS collars to track their movements. Read More

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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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