The ABCs of Alphabet-Magnet Synesthesia

By Elizabeth Preston | March 27, 2015 8:06 am


Is it cool or existentially disturbing to think that your personal brain quirks might come from the toys you played with as a toddler?

In a study published earlier this month, psychologists asked 6,588 American synesthetes what colors they associate with each letter of the alphabet. Then they compared these associations to a certain vintage set of Fisher-Price alphabet magnets. They found that at least 6% of their synesthetes had improbably close matches to the colors of the magnets.

The researchers defined a statistically unlikely match as anyone with more than 10 letters corresponding to the colors of the toy. At least one person had a 26-for-26 correlation, though. For people born between 1970 and 1985, around when the magnet set was manufactured, more like 15% of synesthetes were Fisher-Price matches. Read More

Global Warming Turns Rainforest Leaves into Junk Food

By Elizabeth Preston | March 24, 2015 9:11 am


Like those breakfast cereals that look healthy on the box but have even more sugar inside than Cocoa Puffs, some rainforest trees engage in false advertising. It’s not their fault—it’s ours. Climate change has made their leaves less nutritious than they used to be. And the animals who live off of those trees don’t exactly have another store to shop at.

Experiments in labs and greenhouses have given scientists mixed answers about what happens to plant tissues in a changing climate. So primate ecologist Jessica Rothman of Hunter College and her coauthors set out to get some facts from a real-world setting. To do this, they combined several decades’ worth of data from the rainforests of Uganda.

One team member, Duke University’s Thomas Struhsaker, had kicked things off way back in 1979. Read More

Gliding Ant Flies like a Backward Superman

By Elizabeth Preston | March 20, 2015 11:08 am


Travel to the Amazon and flick an ant off a leaf, and you might be surprised what you see. Certain rainforest ant species can control their falls and glide back onto the trunks of the trees they came from. Unlike Superman, though, they’re only flying to rescue themselves.

An ant is light enough that a drop to the forest floor might not hurt it. But the other animals cruising the ground for snacks will cause trouble for that ant soon enough. That’s why many rainforest ants have evolved to stretch out their legs and glide to safety after a fall. By staying off the ground, they stay alive a little longer.

Yonatan Munk, a researcher at the University of Washington, traveled to Panama and Peru to study one of these ants in particular, called Cephalotes atratus. Munk and his coauthors wanted to see exactly how this gliding ant gets itself back to its home base.

He collected wild ants from colonies at both sites (using “a mixture of honey and canned tuna as bait,” in case you want to try this at home). Then Munk carried the ants into the treetops. While dangling from a branch in a harness, he gripped each ant gently with forceps. Then he dropped it. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bugs, physics, top posts

The Palm Tree That Waters and Fertilizes Itself

By Elizabeth Preston | March 17, 2015 9:53 am


Even the most dismal gardener wouldn’t mind taking charge of a plot of Lodoicea maldivica. This palm tree knows how to water itself. It even adds fertilizer. As a result, it rules the forest, turning a bad soil situation into seeds the size of a four-year-old human.

Lodoicea maldivica is commonly called the coco de mer palm. “Commonly” might be the wrong word, though, since the tree grows on exactly two islands in the world, in the Seychelles. It roots itself in soil made from weathered granite, with barely any nutrients. Sitting on this starved bed, it first grows leaves, sending them on tall stalks toward the forest canopy. This juvenile stage may last for decades. When it reaches adulthood, the palm finally starts to grow a trunk, pushing that crown of fronds up from below.

Male trees make pollen in small flowers that grow on long, sausage-shaped stalks. Female trees fertilized by that pollen grow enormous fruits containing seeds that can weigh as much as 18 kilograms each. That’s nearly 40 pounds.

How does the coco de mer transform its meager resources into the largest seeds on Earth? Read More

Being Stabbed with a Mucus Dagger Is Not Even the Worst Part of Snail Sex

By Elizabeth Preston | March 13, 2015 9:22 am


If snails used Facebook, all their relationship statuses would say “It’s complicated.” It’s also slimy, violent, and life-shortening.

Most species of snail that live on land are hermaphroditic—that is, they have a complete set of female and male sex organs. When they mate, both partners inseminate each other. The act may come after a courtship period. And in certain land snails, this courtship includes the launching of “love darts,” which are much less cute than they sound.

A love dart is a sharp dagger that a snail builds in its body out of calcium carbonate. Before mating, the snail thrusts this dart out of itself and straight into its partner’s flesh. A love dart is not related to a penis (each snail has one of those, too) and doesn’t carry sperm. It’s pure weaponry. You might see a fired dart still jutting from a snail’s neck while it copulates, as in the right-hand snail below: Read More

Icicle Zen (Plus Science)

By Elizabeth Preston | March 10, 2015 9:07 am


Do the sounds of dripping eaves and squelching slush heaps make you just the tiniest bit sad about winter ending? No more crunchy snow underfoot, no more picturesque flakes drifting past your window? Relegating all your sweaters and thick socks to the back of the closet?

Just me?

For anyone else who wants a taste of winter in the off-season—or for anyone living in less wintry climes—now there’s the Icicle Atlas.

Over four years, researchers at the University of Toronto grew and photographed icicles. They may seem mundane when they’re sprouting from your gutters, but icicles are mysterious in how they form. Their shapes emerge from a complex set of interacting factors: air flow, water flow, the icy foundations they’ve already built.

The scientists grew 237 icicles on an icicle growing machine with a slowly rotating dripper nozzle. The apparatus turned about once every four minutes, ensuring that conditions were the same all around the icicle. “This is the same reason you rotate the meat in a BBQ; to make all sides the same,” says Stephen Morris, the physicist who supervised the project.

With their icicles rotisserie-ing away, the researchers tweaked several variables—temperature, air flow rate, water flow rate, the makeup of the water—and watched the effects. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: physics, pretty pictures, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Gadgets, Physics, Water

The Women Who Stare at Babies

By Elizabeth Preston | March 6, 2015 9:06 am


A drooling baby face is not equally exciting to everyone around it. A new study says that young women who like the idea of motherhood get more enjoyment than their peers from staring at infants’ faces. But they don’t love all of those chubby mugs equally. Even more than the baby-neutral, wannabe moms are biased toward the cutest ones.

Amanda Hahn is a researcher at the University of Glasgow’s “Face Research Lab,” directed by psychologists Lisa DeBruine and Benedict Jones. (On their website you can see an averaged photo of all seven lab members’ faces, because of course.) Hahn is especially interested in motivation. For this study, she wanted to know what drives people to look at photos of babies—or not.

Hahn focused on heterosexual women with no children of their own. She recruiting 200 subjects online; their average age was about 22.

As for the baby pictures, Hahn started with 10 photos of real babies. Then she digitally tweaked them to create a slightly cuter, plus a slightly less cute, version of each baby. (Information about what shapes make baby faces more or less cute had come from a previous study.) The differences were subtle, as you can see in the pair of faces below. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Emotions, Psychology

Shy Crabs Make the Most Sperm

By Elizabeth Preston | March 3, 2015 9:45 am


A fellow who hides in his shell until danger has passed may not seem like the epitome of manliness. Yet among hermit crabs, the shyest males have the most to offer the ladies. It’s all part of their evolutionary strategy. Crabs that are long on bravery, meanwhile, are short on sperm.

Mark Briffa, an animal behavior professor at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, and his colleagues found the surprising connection between sperm and shyness while studying “life history” in crabs. To a biologist, life history doesn’t mean the material for an animal’s tell-all memoir. Instead, it means how organisms invest their resources. Living things only get a limited budget of food and energy—so is it better to spend that energy growing big and strong, or searching for a mate? Making sperm or eggs, or building large claws or horns to fight off enemies?

The researchers already knew hermit crabs have personality. A little, anyway. Some crabs are bolder, while others spend more time tucked in their shells. And the researchers wanted to know how these personality traits relate to the rest of a hermit crab’s life-history strategy.

Usually, they explain, bolder animals have more reproductive success. They follow a sort of “live fast, die young” plan: if you have the resources, spend them on running around and mating. When you’re eaten by a seagull, at least you’ll leave some young behind. Read More

Good News, Northerners: Birds from Harsher Climates Are Smarter

By Elizabeth Preston | February 27, 2015 11:02 am

Mountain Chickadee

You won’t see a chickadee shoveling out a parking space and claiming it with a folding chair, no matter how good your binoculars are. But birds, too, have to be resourceful when they live in inhospitable climates. Travel just 600 meters up a mountain, and you’ll find chickadees vastly more clever than their peers living a more comfortable life below.

How do you test the cleverness of birds? Using tubes with tasty worms inside, naturally. Biologists don’t like to call animals “smart,” though, so in this case they were testing the “problem-solving ability” of Poecile gambeli, the mountain chickadee. These songbirds live in the mountainous western United States, ranging from the low foothills to the peaks.

Dovid Kozlovsky, a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and his coauthors wanted to compare a population of mountain chickadees from a higher elevation, where the weather is more severe, to one from a lower elevation. Read More

A Few Citizen Scientists Do Most of the Work

By Elizabeth Preston | February 24, 2015 9:56 am


Nothing turns your internet procrastination time into feelings of goodwill and teamwork like a citizen science project. You can click through a set of penguin photos or moon craters and know that your data are contributing to real science. As more citizens take part, and more researchers discover the joys of free labor, these projects are gaining popularity. But not all citizen scientists pull their weight. In fact, most do nearly nothing.

Henry Sauermann, a management professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is interested in the economics and organization of science. He’s also curious about what motivates scientists. Sauermann and his coauthor, Chiara Franzoni of Politecnico di Milano, thought that citizen science would be “a wonderful new context to think about these general issues,” Sauermann says.

Sauermann and Franzoni gathered data on seven projects at, a citizen science web portal. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: economics, education, screwups, space, top posts

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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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