What Happens When People Text on an Obstacle Course

By Elizabeth Preston | July 31, 2015 9:40 am


Exercise scientist Conrad Earnest was dodging some oblivious pedestrians in England when inspiration struck. He was trying to walk down the sidewalk, but all around him people were weaving back and forth as they focused on their smartphone screens. Earnest suggested to two of his students that they study the dangers of texting while walking. Specifically, they could ask whether texters are more likely to trip and fall—perhaps wishful thinking on Earnest’s part as he walked among them.

The two University of Bath undergrads, Robynne Smith and Sammy Licence, dove into the project. A recent study by other researchers had looked at people who were texting while walking in a straight line. But for this study, they’d try to provide a challenge that was closer to a real-world sidewalk. Subjects would walk an obstacle course that included stairs, a curb, and even fake pedestrians. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Gadgets, Psychology

Sports Stadiums Make Bats into Winners and Losers

By Elizabeth Preston | July 28, 2015 11:05 am


Bats are indifferent to whether we’re playing soccer, baseball, or beach volleyball under our stadium lights. They only care about the game of catch they’re playing with all the bugs attracted to the glow. As bats stuff themselves on swarms of sports-adjacent insects, though, our stadiums may be aiding certain bat species and wiping others out.

Any bat that’s willing to visit a lit-up sports stadium will find a bug bonanza there, says Corrie Schoeman, an ecologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. But some bat species prefer to stay away from cities and lights. Could stadiums shift an area’s ecological balance? To tackle the question, Schoeman visited seven sports stadiums around the city of Durban. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Ecology

An Anxious Moment Makes People Clean Obsessively

By Elizabeth Preston | July 24, 2015 11:26 am


Whether you’re a person biting her nails during a phone interview or a polar bear pacing its cage, anxious animals often do the same thing over and over. Extreme cases of repetitive behavior show up in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder or autism. Now researchers have shown that even a simple, anxiety-inducing experiment can make an average person act in a repetitive and ritualized way.

“A lot of social theorists have talked about the link between anxiety and ritualization,” says Martin Lang, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. However, “There were, to our knowledge, no experimental studies with humans that clearly demonstrated this link.” So Lang and his coauthors turned to psychology’s most popular subjects: university students. And to inspire dread in those students, the researchers used a popular fear: public speaking. Read More

Plants Murder Bugs to Pay Their Bodyguards

By Elizabeth Preston | July 21, 2015 11:17 am


It’s not only carnivorous plants that bugs have to watch out for. Sure, if an ant tumbles into a pitcher plant or a spider stands in the open maw of a Venus flytrap, we know what’s coming next. But certain innocent-looking plants—perhaps very many of them, even including ones in your own yard—murder hosts of insects that they have no plans to eat. They lure passing bugs into a slow death, then exchange their corpses with other insects for protection.

One of these plants is the serpentine columbine, or Aquilegia eximia. Native to California, it grows downward-hanging blossoms in fiery hues. The plant is covered all over in fine hairs, or trichomes, each with a gluey droplet at its tip.

Like flypaper, these sticky plants ensnare many of the tiny creatures that are unfortunate enough to land there. By June, a single stem of serpentine columbine may hold the corpses of hundreds of bugs, write UC Davis graduate student Eric LoPresti and his coauthors. These bugs have been called “tourists” because they don’t live on the plant or need to be there; they’re just making an ill-fated visit. (This makes the sticky plant, the authors note, an actual “tourist trap.” Ahem.) Read More

MORE ABOUT: Ecology, Evolution, Plants

Here It Is: The World’s Oldest Sperm

By Elizabeth Preston | July 17, 2015 8:26 am

worm sperm

Doesn’t look a day over 40 million, right? This fossilized sperm and its compatriots turned up in a 50-million-year-old worm cocoon in Antarctica. And it has some pretty exciting implications for scientists—aside from the obvious news that we’re looking at a loser of an eons-old swimming race.

Ordinarily, squishy worms don’t wriggle into the fossil record. Their boneless bodies tend to disappear from history, just like the soft parts of animals with skeletons. That’s why scientists don’t know much about the evolution of clitellates, a class of creeping animals that includes earthworms and leeches. All they’ve left in the fossil record is a scattering of their hard egg cases, or cocoons. Read More

What’s a Colorblind Person’s Favorite Color? Yellow

By Elizabeth Preston | July 15, 2015 11:22 am


As much as you think your tastes are unique, psychologists say they can guess your favorite color. It’s likely to be blue. And it’s especially unlikely to be yellow—unless you’re colorblind. Men with red-green colorblindness have preferences that are essentially opposite from everyone else’s. The finding could help scientists understand why humans like what they like, and how colorblind people see the world differently.

Some researchers have claimed that the human love of blue is universal. Others have turned up different color preferences between cultures. Either way, studies in the United States and the United Kingdom have found that people with normal color vision tend to most enjoy the color blue, and to least like yellowish-greenish hues.

Universidad Complutense de Madrid graduate student Leticia Álvaro and her coauthors wanted to see how these preferences differ in colorblind people, or “dichromats.” Read More

MORE ABOUT: Physics, Psychology, Senses

Trees Make Canadians Feel Healthier

By Elizabeth Preston | July 10, 2015 10:47 am


What’s a tree worth to you? According to a large study in Toronto, trees may increase both how healthy you feel and how healthy you really are. Having some extra foliage on your block could be as good for your health as a pay raise–or an anti-aging machine.

It’s a complicated relationship to figure out, because variables that affect how many trees you see each day could also affect your health. The population of a concrete, inner-city apartment complex may have socioeconomic differences, for example, from the population of a leafy, well-tended suburb. University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman and his colleagues used a detailed analysis to try to tease out the impact of trees themselves.

They started by going to Canada. In a country with universal health care, they figured, access to doctors isn’t as much of a variable as in the United States. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Personal health, Plants

Weirdo Deep-Sea Anemone Kills a Giant Worm, Goes for a Walk

By Elizabeth Preston | July 7, 2015 10:31 am

Iosactis feeding2

If you already think everything at the bottom of the ocean is slightly terrifying, Iosactis vagabunda won’t change your mind. It’s transparent, can tunnel underground, and hunts animals 15 times its size. And scientists are now realizing that there might be way, way more of these roaming killers than they’d previously thought.

Iosactis vagabunda lives on the Porcupine Abyssal Plain, a seabed southwest of Ireland that ranges from 4,000 to nearly 5,000 meters deep. The species was already thought to be common in this area. But ocean-floor trawls don’t drag up many of the animals, thanks to their small, squishy bodies and tendency to burrow.

To learn what the transparent creatures are really doing down there, National Oceanography Centre graduate student Jennifer Durden and her coauthors used tens of thousands of photographs. Read More

Male Kangaroos’ Arms Evolved to Pound the Crap out of Each Other

By Elizabeth Preston | July 3, 2015 7:15 am


When you look at a kangaroo or a wallaby, it’s obvious the animal is well built for bouncing around the outback. What may be less obvious is that its arms are built for fighting—if it’s male, that is. Males of these species have disproportionately long arm bones. And the more brawling a species does, the more exaggerated the difference between the beefy-armed males and their normal-limbed mates.

To understand this evolutionary quirk, we’ll need to review the rules of fighting in wallabies and kangaroos. (Together, these animals are called macropodids.)

Males wrestle each other to show their dominance and to gain access to females. The first rule of macropodid fight club is not “don’t talk about macropodid fight club,” but “kick a lot.” Read More

Scientists Unsure Why Female Flies Expel Sperm and Eat It

By Elizabeth Preston | June 30, 2015 7:05 am


This month has accidentally taken on a theme of “animals putting things outside their bodies that we think should stay inside” (starfish tags, sea squirt stomachs). So this post, which first appeared in April 2013, seemed like the right one to wrap up with.

She’s apparently a picky mater but not a picky eater. The female of a certain fly species, after mating with a male, dumps his ejaculate back out of her body and onto the ground. Then she gobbles it up. Despite new hints that this behavior may help the female choose which partner fertilizes her eggs, or keep her healthy in times of famine, scientists are still a little perplexed by it.

Various female insects, spiders, and birds are known to expel the male ejaculate from their bodies after the deed is done. In some cases, it seems to let them decide which male’s sperm reaches their eggs. Females don’t always choose who mates with them, but that doesn’t mean they have no choice in their progeny’s fatherhood. (This kind of female choosiness about sperm can lead to evolutionary arms races between males and females. The “copulatory plug” is a popular tool among male insects, spiders, reptiles, and even some mammals.)

Eating the ejaculate, as Euxesta bilimeki does, is less popular. Read More



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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@Inkfish on Twitter


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