It sounds like the setup to a bad joke told by zoologists: What do you get when you cross a bird that always flies to the west with one that always flies east? But the punch line is weirder than you’d guess. Birds’ migratory routes are partly coded into their DNA. A baby that inherits genes for two different routes doesn’t commit to either path. Instead it bounces between them and may take a wild zigzag straight through the middle—even if that route is perilous.
Laboratory tests in the past have hinted that this might be true. One study of captive warblers, for example, crossed a type that orients itself to the southwest when it’s ready to migrate with a type that orients southeast. The offspring pointed themselves directly south.
Kira Delmore and Darren Irwin, researchers at the University of British Columbia, wanted to put this idea to a tougher test. So they captured wild birds, attached geolocator tags to their backs, and sent the birds out into the world again. When the travelers returned, the researchers could see exactly where they’d chosen to fly. Read More
It may be time to leave “busy as a bee” with other dubious animal similes like “happy as a clam” and “drunk as a skunk.” That’s because some bees, it turns out, aren’t all that busy. A small group of hive members do the bulk of the foraging, while their sisters relax at home. But their lifestyles aren’t permanent. If the busy bees disappear suddenly, the lazier ones will step up to take their place.
Scientists figured this out—somewhat incredibly—by gluing tiny RFID tags to over a thousand honeybees. (An RFID tag is the same miniature transponder that a vet might inject into your dog, that’s replacing barcodes on some merchandise and library books, and that makes your public transit card work.) Each beehive in the experiment had a pair of laser scanners over a walkway at its entrance. As bees passed through, they were recorded like items in a checkout lane. Using two scanners let the scientists tell whether bees were coming or going. Read More
It’s always a good idea to bring reading material on your trips, whether you plan to have some airport downtime or you’re spending five years floating on the ocean. When Charles Darwin departed in 1831 for his trip around the world on the HMS Beagle, he had a well-stocked library. But the collection wasn’t saved, and neither was the catalogue listing the titles.
The team behind Darwin Online, led by John van Wyhe, has been working to recreate that library. They painstakingly worked backward from comments and citations in Darwin’s notebooks, which were sometimes brief and cryptic (“Ellis horse story,” read one). Now they’ve reconstructed the Beagle library as completely as possible. It’s an online collection of 404 volumes, which all of us in the 21st century can peruse from the comfort of solid ground.
The library is heavy on atlases and travel narratives and light on fiction (I hope you like Paradise Lost). Here are a few critical pieces of 19th-century knowledge I uncovered there: Read More
Primates basically invented “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Baboons, for example, trade grooming for favors from other troop members. Social relationships are important to the monkeys. But it seems they put more effort into certain relationships depending on the time of day: in the morning, lower-ranking baboons invest more energy in grooming animals who can make the rest of their day go smoothly.
Chacma baboons help each other out in several ways, says Claudia Sick, a biologist at the University of Copenhagen. They groom each other, which keeps them clean, relieves stress, and strengthens their social bonds. They also trade grooming for favors like access to infants (everyone in the troop enjoys hanging out with the babies), mating, and maybe even backup in fights. We can think of these favors like commodities that the monkeys exchange in a “biological market,” Sick says. Read More
The world holds very few unexplored places between zero and six feet off the ground. If humans can walk right up to it and take a picture, we probably already have. But the tops of the trees, like the bottom of the ocean, are a different story.
“We know so much less about arboreal mammal activity than we do about terrestrial mammal activity,” says Tremaine Gregory, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She thought camera-trapping, a common method for observing land animals, might also be useful for studying the ones hiding in the treetops. That’s why she hooked herself to a rope and started hoisting cameras into the towering Amazonian canopy. Read More
“First, do no harm,” the saying goes, but that might be close to impossible. Just as our expectations can make us feel better, they can also make us feel much worse. This means that how doctors phrase their instructions or introduce new drugs may have a real impact on our health. But some doctors are trying to figure out how they can do less harm by harnessing the surprising power of their words.
“In the classical view that is still taught at medical school and in textbooks, drug actions are purely determined by the drug,” says Ulrike Bingel, a neurologist at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. “But that is not true.” Read More
Happy Independence Day! Here’s hoping all your fireworks are experienced externally. This post first appeared in October 2012.
The Shambulance is an occasional series in which I try to find the truth about bogus or overhyped health products. Physiologist Steven Swoap is with me at the helm.
If you’ve been tempted by promotions for “colon hydrotherapy”—that is, sessions in which you would pay someone to put a tube up your rectum and wash out your large intestine with water, like a dirty garage being hosed down in summer—then you’ve already overcome some impressive mental hurdles. Maybe you’re almost ready to enjoy the relaxation, renewed energy, and improved health that the procedure promises. Before you take the plunge, as it were, here are a few points to consider.
It’s not the 19th century.
People who offer colon hydrotherapy (also called a colonic) tell you the large intestine is full of “toxic waste and toxins.” It does, of course, carry waste out of your body. But is it a two-way street? Read More
“It was an idea that just popped into my head,” says Ludovico Cademartiri, a materials scientist who’s upped his research game by using Legos. He hopes other researchers will steal his idea, and not just because Legos are fun. Cademartiri thinks the humble bricks could help solve the world’s impending food crisis.
Members of Cademartiri’s lab at Iowa State University work on a wide range of research projects—from nanomaterials to electricity to plant science. While Cademartiri and postdoctoral researcher Tom Sizmur were brainstorming ways to build containers to study plant growth, they struggled with a long wish list. The best building material would be something cheap and modular, so that experiments could easily be scaled from the very smallest seedlings to the largest plants. It would also come in precise sizes, so researchers could repeat their experiments exactly.
Then it hit Cademartiri: Read More
Quick: which of these things should you worry about if it’s coming toward you?
a.) grizzly bear
c.) frowny face emoticon
You many not have time to assess all the risks (is the bear running? does the frowny face have greater-than-symbol eyebrows?). But without thinking about it, you’ll have a bad feeling about all of them. We have negative reactions to anything moving toward us, according to a recent study, no matter how harmless it really is.
Behavioral scientists at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, along with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, asked whether we feel differently about things that are moving toward us or away from us (or staying still). Previous research had shown that whether an object is near or far can affect our emotional response to it. So it makes sense that whether something’s moving from one distance to another might matter too.
The researchers started not with a grizzly bear or even an approaching stranger, but with letters. As in “of the alphabet.” Read More
Whether you make your home in a high-rise apartment building or a drainpipe, city life has a different pace than country life. Urban environments mean an endless series of challenges for your mind and body: noise, crowds, pollution, quick decisions while facing oncoming vehicles. City-dwelling humans like to think of themselves as tough and not easily rattled. Whether that’s true or not, it does describe city-dwelling blackbirds, which can handle any kind of challenge without showing signs of stress.
(“Any kind of challenge,” in this case, includes loud radio playing, temporary kidnapping, and being chased with a plastic bag. But more on that shortly.) Read More