Whip Spiders Use Their Feet to Smell Their Way Home

By Elizabeth Preston | January 24, 2017 9:44 am

6-Whip spider re-located at night with transmitter

After a late dinner, a jungle-dwelling whip spider can’t rely on an Uber driver to get her home. She has to find the way herself, in the pitch-black, picking her way over thick undergrowth to reach the tree she lives on. It’s a trick she can even manage when plucked from her home tree and tossed into the forest at random, up to 10 meters away. Now scientists think whip spiders don’t use her eyes for this homing feat—they use their feet. Read More

Experience with Traffic Makes Pigeons Reckless

By Elizabeth Preston | January 8, 2017 12:43 pm

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You might expect city-dwelling birds to be savvy about traffic. Birds didn’t evolve around giant, motorized predators made of metal—but once they realize how quickly a cab or bus can bear down on them, they should take heed. A recent study, though, found that pigeons do just the opposite.

Travis DeVault is a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center. Based in Ohio, he looks for ways to keep birds, bats, deer and other animals from being struck by cars, planes and helicopters. These kinds of collisions are bad news for the animals, obviously, but are also dangerous for humans. Read More

Why Giant Salamanders Make Great Dads

By Elizabeth Preston | December 22, 2016 3:50 pm

Japanese Giant Salamander

Seeking a role model for fatherhood? Look no further than an enormous, secretive salamander who only sometimes eats his babies.

You’re not likely to stumble across a  Japanese giant salamander in the wild, and if you did you might wish you hadn’t. These oversized amphibians are the golems of the animal world: bloated and tiny-eyed, they lurk in stream banks like animated sacks of mud. Andrias japonicus can grow almost 5 feet long, making it smaller than its Chinese cousin but larger than the related North American hellbender (a.k.a. “snot otter”). Japanese giant salamanders are rare and shy, though, so you won’t see one unless you go searching.

Scientists in Japan spied on two of the elusive animals to follow up on earlier hints that the blobby creatures might be great parents. Not the moms, that is—they skip out after leaving their eggs—but the dads. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: parenting, top posts, weird animals

Bacteria Help Pitcher Plants Trap Prey

By Elizabeth Preston | December 12, 2016 2:16 pm

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Pity the insect that tumbles into a pitcher plant’s trap. The slippery walls and waiting pool of water ensure it won’t clamber back out. There’s nothing left to do but wait to be digested.

The California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica) is also called the cobra lily for its curled-over shape that hides its exit from its victims. Unlike other pitcher plants, it doesn’t fill its trap from above with rainwater but from below, drawing water up with its roots. But like others, it seems to use bacteria living in that well to help digest its prey.

The bacteria perform another role too: making the liquid even harder for an insect to escape than ordinary water. Read More

Parkour Athletes Teach Scientists about Swinging Apes

By Elizabeth Preston | December 2, 2016 12:40 pm

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“I was at a conference, and a colleague was talking about the locomotion of great apes in the trees,” says Lewis Halsey, a physiologist at the University of Roehampton in London. The colleague mentioned that it’s tough to measure how these animals use energy. That’s when Halsey had an epiphany. “I was working with parkour athletes on another project,” he says, studying how much energy the athletes used while jumping and climbing around a city. Why not use these human athletes to stand in for tree-living apes?

Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals

When Facing Predators, Male Monkeys Do Whatever Females Tell Them

By Elizabeth Preston | November 25, 2016 2:48 pm

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In the forests of West Africa, bands of handsome primates called Diana monkeys roam the tree branches. Each group has just one male and several females with their babies. The tradeoff for his apparently cushy living situation is that the male has to chase off predators. His female companions use specific calls to tell him what kinds of threats are nearby. And he responds to whatever they tell him—even if it goes against his own judgment.

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Breeding Made Dogs Less Athletic

By Elizabeth Preston | November 17, 2016 5:06 pm

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Is your dog a natural athlete or a couch pup-tato? The answer might depend on how far removed it is from its wild ancestors. Dogs that are more similar to wolves have kept more of their natural athleticism, while breeding has rendered other types of dogs a little…less impressive.

Caleb Bryce, a PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz, says his study of canine athletes came about serendipitously. “We were just hoping to calibrate a new wildlife collar we’ve developed,” he says; he planned to test the collars on “a dog or two” before using the technology to study how wolves use energy. But the collars revealed so much variation between those dogs in energy use that Bryce and ecophysiologist Terrie Williams decided to investigate further.

The researchers looked at 23 adult dogs, divided into three groups. One was “northern breeds,” or sled dogs: these included Siberian huskies, Alaskan malamutes, and Samoyeds. Another group was Plott hounds, a dog bred for tracking game by scent. The third group was made up of retrievers, including golden retrievers and labs. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Evolution

Snakes Defend Themselves with Shape-Shifting Eyes

By Elizabeth Preston | November 7, 2016 1:39 pm

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Superman donned glasses to disguise himself and blend in with other people. One snake hides its identity using a similar trick: when threatened, it changes the shape of its pupils. This makes it resemble a much more dangerous animal.

The mock viper (Psammodynastes pulverulentus) is mild-mannered, not superpowered. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: evolution, top posts, weird animals
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Evolution

Dogs Do as You Do, Not as You Say

By Elizabeth Preston | October 27, 2016 9:08 pm

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Italy’s school for water rescue dogs, the Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio, has trained hundreds of animals in canine heroics. The dogs work on Italian police and coast guard boats, and with fire departments and the navy. They can even jump into the ocean from a hovering helicopter to save a person.

They’re pros at taking commands from humans. So researchers wondered if the dogs could help them understand what kind of command works best: Words? Or gestures? Read More

Cuttlefish Can Count to Five

By Elizabeth Preston | September 1, 2016 9:22 am

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Don’t look now, but this spineless sea creature may be able to count better than your toddler.

Cuttlefish need to be savvy if they want to eat. They’re always on the lookout for shrimp, fish or crabs. When a cuttlefish spots a potential victim, it shoots out two specialized, sucker-bearing tentacles and nabs it. Since these hunters have to make constant judgments about which prey are worth targeting, it would make sense for them to have advanced cognitive skills—say, the ability to count.

To find out whether this was true, Tsang-I Yang and Chuan-Chin Chiao, of Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University, brought some Sepia pharaonis cuttlefish into the lab for a math exam. 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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