Robots and Humans Race, Everyone Wins

By Elizabeth Preston | April 13, 2015 1:24 pm

The Robot Race and Human 5K brought together humans and non-humans of all speeds in Cambridge, MA.

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I never pass up a robot race. I can say this because I have heard of exactly one robot race ever, and I did not pass it up.

On April 12 I attended the Robot Race and Human 5K, sponsored by Vecna Cares. This was actually two separate races, a human 5K followed by a robot 100-meter dash. Or a 100-meter slow crawl, depending which robot we’re talking about. Or a 50-meter roll followed by a dead stop. Read More


Wasp Moms Build Safer Rooms for Their Favorite Offspring

By Elizabeth Preston | April 10, 2015 10:13 am


Even if you think your parents played favorites among you and your siblings, they probably weren’t as blatant as a wasp mother. Unless maybe they put your sister in a locked, secure room and fed you to mountain lions.

To be fair, a queen paper wasp (Polistes chinensis antennalis) is a single mom with a lot on her plate. She sets off alone in the spring, after mating, to found a new colony. She mixes her spit with plant fibers to make a pulp that she shapes into a house of delicate, hexagonal rooms. Then she lays her eggs in the cells and waits.

Eventually her eggs hatch into helpless larvae. Later, those larvae spin cocoons to seal themselves inside their cells while they metamorphose into adults. The developing young are vulnerable whenever their mother flies off to find more food. Neighboring wasp queens like to visit an unguarded nest, snatch a baby from its cell, and bring it home to carve up and feed to their own young. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bugs, top posts, Uncategorized

Dehydrated Sea Snakes: The Thirst Is Real

By Elizabeth Preston | April 7, 2015 2:17 pm

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It’s a shame snakes can’t appreciate irony. If they could, sea snakes in Australia might find some humor in their situation. Despite living in water, they seem to spend much of their time desperately dehydrated.

The true sea snakes, or Hydrophiini, include more than 60 species of almost frighteningly well-adapted reptiles. They swim with a graceful, ribbon-like motion through coastal waters around the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They have a venomous bite. Like many other snakes, they give birth to live young. (If you’re curious about what this looks like, there’s a video of a garter snake mom extruding some babies at the end of this post.)

The ancestors of these snakes, though, lived on land. Scientists aren’t sure how these formerly terrestrial animals evolved to live full-time in water that’s too salty to drink safely. It had been suggested that salt glands under the snakes’ tongues help them to process seawater. But more recent research showed that sea snakes can be dehydrated in the wild—they’re not getting enough to drink after all.

To find out more, University of Florida biologist Harvey Lillywhite and his coauthors got in a motorboat. Read More

The Jay Who Came to Dinner (on a Sloth)

By Elizabeth Preston | April 3, 2015 10:39 am

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Kelsey Neam was strolling through the trees in Costa Rica and looking for sloths when she spotted something unusual. High on a tree branch, a three-toed sloth was eating leaves at an unhurried pace. It seemed oblivious to three brown jays that perched nearby and were watching it intently. Then one jay scooted closer and plunged its beak into the sloth’s fur.

Neam is a graduate student in ecology at Texas A&M University. She was in the Costa Rican cloud forests to study three-toed sloths (Bradypus variegatus) and where they live. But the interaction she stumbled upon has less to do with where sloths live, and more to do with what lives on them. Read More

Moths Fondly Remember Plant Species Where They Lost Their Virginity

By Elizabeth Preston | March 31, 2015 10:01 am


Think real estate decisions are hard for humans? Imagine if the house you lived in were also your singles bar, your babies’ nursery, and your shelter from large animals trying to eat you. And, while you were growing up, your food source, as you nibbled away its floors and shingles.

Moths face all these pressures each time they settle down on a plant. That may be why at least one type of moth uses pleasant associations to help with its choices. The plant species where an individual loses its virginity becomes a favorite. Read More

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


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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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