What’s In a Snout?

By Elizabeth Preston | April 1, 2016 10:26 am


It may sound superficial, but you can judge a lot about an animal from its schnoz. Plant-eaters have evolved the perfect snout shapes to nibble, chomp, or tear up the foods they love. And by decoding those shapes, scientists hope they can learn more about plant-eaters that are more mysterious—namely, dinosaurs. Read More

These Birds Learn to Recognize Humans They Hate

By Elizabeth Preston | March 29, 2016 11:38 am

skua attack

Antarctic seabirds called skuas are so clever that they can recognize individual humans after seeing them only a few times. Some Korean researchers discovered this by messing with the birds’ nests and then waiting to get attacked. They’re either very brave or have never watched The Birds.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: birds, brains, top posts, whether to panic

Prozac in the Water Makes Fighting Fish More Mellow

By Elizabeth Preston | March 23, 2016 2:00 pm


Had Teresa Dzieweczynski chosen to publish her recent findings as an updated children’s classic, rather than as a research paper, she could have titled it If You Give a Fish an Antidepressant. The book would probably be less charming than If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. But it would also be, unfortunately, more realistic. Our pharmaceuticals are steadily trickling into the homes of fish and other animals. And—as the hero of the original book could have told us, his house in disarray after fulfilling the whims of a hungry rodent—there are consequences.

Dzieweczynski, a psychologist at the University of New England, looked at just one of the drugs that’s crept into American waterways: fluoxetine, better known as Prozac. Read More

Even Harmless Snakes Strike at Deadly Speed

By Elizabeth Preston | March 18, 2016 10:34 am

Texas Rat Snake 2239a

Just because a snake can’t kill you doesn’t mean it’s slow on the draw. New research shows that harmless snakes strike just as quickly as venomous vipers do. The snakes hurl themselves at their targets so quickly, in fact, that a lesser animal would black out from the acceleration.

Vipers have long been the presumed titleholders for strike speed, explains David Penning, a graduate student in biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. These snakes strike to kill, plunging their venom-injecting fangs into a rat or lizard before it can react. But no one has thoroughly tested the assumption that vipers are the fastest, Penning says. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Physics

Birds Give Up Colorful Feathers for Carefree Island Lifestyle

By Elizabeth Preston | March 15, 2016 2:49 pm

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Island living may call to mind vivid flowering vines and colorful plumage. But in reality, birds on islands around the world have evolved less-colorful feathers than their mainland relatives. Their drab, simple patterns are only the latest evidence that island evolution is kind of weird.

Claire Doutrelant, an ecologist at France’s Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, and her coauthors studied 116 pairs of bird species, or 232 species in all. Each pair included an island bird and its closest relative that lives on the mainland and breeds at a similar latitude. For example, one pair was made up of the Hawaiian nene and the Canada goose. Read More

Warthogs Visit Mongooses for Spa Treatments

By Elizabeth Preston | March 11, 2016 2:13 pm


Did you know there’s a newsletter entirely about pigs, peccaries and hippos? It’s published twice a year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The newsletter used to be called the Asian Wild Pig News, until its name was changed to the more poetic Suiform Soundings. 

Anyway, if you had a subscription, you would have read recently about an unusual group of warthogs. In a national park in Uganda, the warthogs have developed a very friendly relationship with local mongooses. The warthogs treat the mongooses like their own personal spa. In return, the mongooses get to eat their fill of delicious ticks. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: friends, top posts, weird animals
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Ecology

Whee! New Footage of Rare Whales (and Their Babies)

By Elizabeth Preston | March 8, 2016 11:13 am


Last fall, New England Aquarium biologist Salvatore Cerchio shared some incredible observations he and his colleagues had made off the coast of Madagascar. They’d found a population of Omura’s whales. Previously, no scientists had ever seen these animals alive—and they only knew of the whales living far away, in the western Pacific.

By following the whales around the Indian Ocean, the researchers gleaned tidbits of new information. They observed the whales’ asymmetrical coloring, mostly gray with a white patch on the right side of the jaw. They watched the whales feed by lunging through the sea with their mouths wide open to filter out tiny animals. And they saw that Omura’s whales tend to hang out alone, though they may be listening to each other’s distinctive songs underwater.

Now, Cerchio has published new video footage of the Madagascar population. Read More

Plants Build Sand Armor to Fight Hungry Animals

By Elizabeth Preston | March 4, 2016 9:10 am

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No one likes a mouthful of sand. Even that single speck of grit that crunches in your molars after a day at the beach is maddening. It turns out non-human animals aren’t fans of eating sand either. That’s why certain plants use sticky hairs to coat themselves in layers of grit. For keeping hungry animals away, it works like a charm.

Eric LoPresti, a graduate student in ecology at the University of California, Davis, and his advisor Richard Karban have listed over 200 species of plants that coat themselves in sand. (The trick is called “psammophory,” if you’re looking to expand your vocabulary in a mostly useless way.) Read More

Kids Want Friends Who Know the Same Songs

By Elizabeth Preston | March 1, 2016 10:39 am


“I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” Mister Rogers used to sing from millions of television sets while changing his shoes. But even if Fred Rogers wanted to be everyone’s neighbor, most people are more selective. Whether they choose to hang out with each other may depend on their gender, race, political affiliation, or even favorite sports teams. A new study shows that these preferences start early: kids as young as 4 years old want to be friends with other kids who know the same songs they do.

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5 Things Matt Damon Has in Common with the New Mark Watney Plant

By Elizabeth Preston | February 26, 2016 11:30 am

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The hero of The Martian, one of the films up for Best Picture at this weekend’s Academy Awards, isn’t unusual because he’s a scientist—he’s unusual because he’s a plant scientist. Books and movies rarely even try to make botany seem cool. Yet Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is definitely meant to be cool. “I am the greatest botanist on this planet!” he declares after being abandoned on Mars.

Real plant scientists are thrilled to see a cool botanist on the big screen. Chris Martine, a professor at Bucknell University who studies plant reproduction, called the movie “perhaps the finest paean to botanical science (and botanical field work) that Hollywood has yet presented.” And he marked the occasion fittingly. When Martine discovered a new plant species in the Northern Territory of Australia, he named it after Mark Watney.

The plant, Solanum watneyi, is a kind of bush tomato, a flowering shrub that lives in dry parts of Australia. Bush tomatoes are related to potatoes—the plants that keep Watney alive on Mars. Solanum watneyi also has a few things in common with Matt Damon himself: Read More

MORE ABOUT: Ecology, Plants


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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