The Scariest Animals, by the Numbers

By Elizabeth Preston | October 16, 2015 11:13 am


Spiders are less scary than snakes, but scarier than clowns. That’s one of the findings of a survey of American fears published this week. The survey creators focused on the things Americans find most frightening: government corruption, cyber-terrorism, and tracking of their personal data, for example. But America’s creepy-crawlies have surely been waiting, in their drains and dark corners, to find out how they ranked.

Chapman University carried out the second annual Survey of American Fears, asking about 1,500 adults across the country how they felt about threats ranging from natural disasters to the paranormal. Read More

Why More Firstborn Kids Need Glasses

By Elizabeth Preston | October 14, 2015 10:29 am


It’s bad enough for the first kid when a new baby shows up to steal your thunder. But the injustice is compounded when you have to start wearing glasses while your little sibling stays as cute and non-four-eyed as ever. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone: firstborn kids are more likely to be nearsighted. Part of the reason might be that they get more education.

A study in the United Kingdom and Israel found that myopia—that’s nearsightedness, if you’re one of those lucky people who hasn’t spent much time at the optometrist’s office—is about 10% more common in firstborn children. But that study only looked at subjects between 15 and 22 years old. Is this a new issue, or have older siblings always gotten the short end of the eyesight stick? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: education, medicine, parenting, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Personal health, Senses

How Cuttlefish Stay Camouflaged On the Go

By Elizabeth Preston | October 6, 2015 9:11 am


Most camouflaged creatures try to hold still so they won’t give away their ruse. But cuttlefish aren’t most creatures. These masters of camouflage can change color to seamlessly match their background, and they can keep swimming while they do it.

“Cuttlefish are one of nature’s fastest dynamic camouflagers,” says Noam Josef, a graduate student at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. The cephalopods can change color in just one tenth of a second. They can also create different patterns and textures on their skin. Despite being colorblind, they can disguise themselves as rocks, other fish, or smudges on a sandy seafloor. (Watch a cuttlefish gamely match its skin to different backgrounds in this video.)

Josef wanted to know more about how cuttlefish change colors while they’re in motion. Read More

Poop on a Stick Tests Penguins’ Sense of Smell

By Elizabeth Preston | October 2, 2015 11:35 am

penguin poop stick

Who doesn’t enjoy waking to a pleasant smell wafting past? Unfortunately for them, the penguins in a recent study woke up not to pancakes frying nearby, but to less appetizing aromas—for example, feces on a stick. But scientists promise the experiment taught them valuable lessons about a penguin’s capabilities. Besides, they let the birds go right back to sleep. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: birds, navigation, poo, smell, sound, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Senses

How Sheep Are like an Avalanche

By Elizabeth Preston | September 29, 2015 12:40 pm


Sheep are rarely dangerous to skiers, but otherwise they have a lot in common with avalanches. That’s what physicists say after mathematically modeling the ungulates’ behavior (and staying well out of their path).

Francesco Ginelli, who researches complex systems at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, had already studied flocks of birds and schools of fish. But he was curious to learn what was different about the movement of sheep or other grazers. Animals like these have a simple goal, Ginelli says: “They need to eat without being eaten.”  Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Math

Five Sea Creatures to Really Freak Out the Boston Fish Bros

By Elizabeth Preston | September 25, 2015 10:32 am


A Boston man’s incredulous, shout-y, and profanity-packed encounter with a fish charmed the Internet this week. What would he say if he could see some of the things swimming a little deeper?

On his Facebook page, Michael Bergin posted the now-viral video taken on a fishing trip with his friend Jason Foster. The two have just come across a sunfish and Bergin is losing his mind. To be fair, the sunfish (Mola mola) is a pretty weird fish. It’s huge and ungainly, like a big, lumpy face with fins. It likes to turn sideways and flop around near the surface to soak up sun, which is how Bergin and Foster found it. Read More

Taste Mutation Helps Monkeys Enjoy Human Food

By Elizabeth Preston | September 22, 2015 3:02 pm


It’s hard to be a primate who lives in northern climes and doesn’t wear clothes. Resources are scarce, and you have to seize every advantage you can to stay alive and swinging. That may be why one group of monkeys has evolved an impaired tasting gene. Their worse sense of taste means they can better take advantage of the foods around them—especially the crops their human neighbors grow.

Japanese macaques, or Macaca fuscata, are also called snow monkeys. They live farther north than any other non-human primate. To stay warm, they huddle together or take dips in hot springs. Sometimes their home forests are washed away by tsunamis. All things considered, they do OK. But researchers in Japan recently discovered a genetic mutation that might give some of these macaques a boost.

The mutation is in one gene in a group called the TAS2Rs. In mammals such as you, the macaque, or a mouse, these genes code for receptors that pick up bitter flavors. Read More

Penguins Find Each Other’s Beaks Sexy

By Elizabeth Preston | September 16, 2015 10:26 am


If Tinder for penguins existed, birds with the best beak spots would get swiped right. King penguins are attracted to the colors on each other’s beaks, scientists have found—including colors we clueless humans can’t see.

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) live near the bottom of the world and are monogamous for about a year at a time. They’re a little smaller than emperor penguins, the ones you saw in March of the Penguins, and have a less arduous lifestyle. In the spring, they gather on the shore in massive breeding colonies. Individuals on the edges of the colony flirt with each other and form tentative pairs. Once two penguins have committed, they move farther into the colony and get down to business. Read More

You Are an Expert Tweeter

By Elizabeth Preston | September 11, 2015 9:04 am


Do you tweet formally for a wide audience (and use abbrevs 4 ur peeps)? You may not realize you’re doing it. But a study of  hundreds of thousands of tweets showed that Twitter users subtly tailor their language based on who’s reading.

Twitter “is a single platform that serves a huge range of communicative functions,” says Jacob Eisenstein, who leads a computational linguistics lab at Georgia Tech. With the same 140-character messages, a user can participate in a mass social movement or gossip with close friends. This makes Twitter different from other forms of written communication.

Yet while you can’t control how far your tweets fly, there are ways to narrow or widen your potential audience. If you begin a tweet with another user’s @handle, for instance, only people who follow both of you will see it. You’ve shrunken your readership (at least until people start retweeting your brilliant remark). On the other hand, using #hashtags broadens a tweet’s potential audience. Anyone following or searching for a hashtag on their favorite topic will see your tweet.

Eisenstein wanted to know whether we tweet differently depending on the size of our audience. He and graduate student Umashanthi Pavalanathan combed through a set of 114 million tweets to find out. Read More

It’s Easy to Be Fearless When You Have a Good Shell

By Elizabeth Preston | September 4, 2015 10:57 am

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 8.11.38 AM

Aesop never penned a fable about a snail. If he had written about a certain freshwater mollusk, the moral might have been Boldness comes from a strong shell or maybe Careless snails get chomped. But because the snail and its variable shell are real, their lesson has more to do with the the weird workings of evolution.

Individual Radix balthica snails can have differently shaped shells. They also have varying “personalities,” at least as far as you can measure such a thing in a mollusk. To see whether their shells and personalities were linked, Johan Ahlgren, a researcher at Lund University in Sweden, gathered snail eggs from four nearby ponds.

Back in the lab, Alberg waited for the eggs to hatch. He fed the young snails algae and lettuce until they were grown. Then he subjected the animals to a personality test. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Evolution, Genetics


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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