Baboons Trade Morning Favors for All-Day Payoffs

By Elizabeth Preston | July 18, 2014 10:01 am


Primates basically invented “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Baboons, for example, trade grooming for favors from other troop members. Social relationships are important to the monkeys. But it seems they put more effort into certain relationships depending on the time of day: in the morning, lower-ranking baboons invest more energy in grooming animals who can make the rest of their day go smoothly.

Chacma baboons help each other out in several ways, says Claudia Sick, a biologist at the University of Copenhagen. They groom each other, which keeps them clean, relieves stress, and strengthens their social bonds. They also trade grooming for favors like access to infants (everyone in the troop enjoys hanging out with the babies), mating, and maybe even backup in fights. We can think of these favors like commodities that the monkeys exchange in a “biological market,” Sick says. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: economics, top posts, Uncategorized

Here’s What Happens When You Put Camera Traps in Trees

By Elizabeth Preston | July 15, 2014 11:18 am


The world holds very few unexplored places between zero and six feet off the ground. If humans can walk right up to it and take a picture, we probably already have. But the tops of the trees, like the bottom of the ocean, are a different story.

“We know so much less about arboreal mammal activity than we do about terrestrial mammal activity,” says Tremaine Gregory, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She thought camera-trapping, a common method for observing land animals, might also be useful for studying the ones hiding in the treetops. That’s why she hooked herself to a rope and started hoisting cameras into the towering Amazonian canopy. Read More


Say No to Nocebo: How Doctors Can Keep Patients’ Minds from Making Them Sicker

By Elizabeth Preston | July 9, 2014 10:19 am


“First, do no harm,” the saying goes, but that might be close to impossible. Just as our expectations can make us feel better, they can also make us feel much worse. This means that how doctors phrase their instructions or introduce new drugs may have a real impact on our health. But some doctors are trying to figure out how they can do less harm by harnessing the surprising power of their words.

“In the classical view that is still taught at medical school and in textbooks, drug actions are purely determined by the drug,” says Ulrike Bingel, a neurologist at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. “But that is not true.” Read More

The Shambulance: 5 Reasons Not to “Cleanse” Your Colon

By Elizabeth Preston | July 4, 2014 9:22 am

Happy Independence Day! Here’s hoping all your fireworks are experienced externally. This post first appeared in October 2012.


The Shambulance is an occasional series in which I try to find the truth about bogus or overhyped health products. Physiologist Steven Swoap is with me at the helm.

If you’ve been tempted by promotions for “colon hydrotherapy”—that is, sessions in which you would pay someone to put a tube up your rectum and wash out your large intestine with water, like a dirty garage being hosed down in summer—then you’ve already overcome some impressive mental hurdles. Maybe you’re almost ready to enjoy the relaxation, renewed energy, and improved health that the procedure promises. Before you take the plunge, as it were, here are a few points to consider.

It’s not the 19th century.
People who offer colon hydrotherapy (also called a colonic) tell you the large intestine is full of “toxic waste and toxins.” It does, of course, carry waste out of your body. But is it a two-way street? Read More

To Feed the World, Try Legos

By Elizabeth Preston | July 1, 2014 8:25 am

lego plant

“It was an idea that just popped into my head,” says Ludovico Cademartiri, a materials scientist who’s upped his research game by using Legos. He hopes other researchers will steal his idea, and not just because Legos are fun. Cademartiri thinks the humble bricks could help solve the world’s impending food crisis.

Members of Cademartiri’s lab at Iowa State University work on a wide range of research projects—from nanomaterials to electricity to plant science. While Cademartiri and postdoctoral researcher Tom Sizmur were brainstorming ways to build containers to study plant growth, they struggled with a long wish list. The best building material would be something cheap and modular, so that experiments could easily be scaled from the very smallest seedlings to the largest plants. It would also come in precise sizes, so researchers could repeat their experiments exactly.

Then it hit Cademartiri: Read More

Objects Bring Fear the Closer They Appear

By Elizabeth Preston | June 27, 2014 7:46 am

shark truck

Quick: which of these things should you worry about if it’s coming toward you?

a.) grizzly bear

b.) pedestrian

c.) frowny face emoticon

You many not have time to assess all the risks (is the bear running? does the frowny face have greater-than-symbol eyebrows?). But without thinking about it, you’ll have a bad feeling about all of them. We have negative reactions to anything moving toward us, according to a recent study, no matter how harmless it really is.

Behavioral scientists at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, along with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, asked whether we feel differently about things that are moving toward us or away from us (or staying still). Previous research had shown that whether an object is near or far can affect our emotional response to it. So it makes sense that whether something’s moving from one distance to another might matter too.

The researchers started not with a grizzly bear or even an approaching stranger, but with letters. As in “of the alphabet.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: brains, quiz, sound, top posts, whether to panic
MORE ABOUT: Emotions, Psychology, Senses

City Birds Are Adapted for Every Kind of Stress

By Elizabeth Preston | June 24, 2014 9:45 am

turdus merula

Whether you make your home in a high-rise apartment building or a drainpipe, city life has a different pace than country life. Urban environments mean an endless series of challenges for your mind and body: noise, crowds, pollution, quick decisions while facing oncoming vehicles. City-dwelling humans like to think of themselves as  tough and not easily rattled. Whether that’s true or not, it does describe city-dwelling blackbirds, which can handle any kind of challenge without showing signs of stress.

(“Any kind of challenge,” in this case, includes loud radio playing, temporary kidnapping, and being chased with a plastic bag. But more on that shortly.) Read More

Yaks Use Highest, Steepest Parts of the World for No-Boys-Allowed Meetings

By Elizabeth Preston | June 20, 2014 9:34 am


It’s hard for humans to tell what wild yaks are doing up there. Living high in the Tibetan Plateau, the rare ungulates are not easy to find. When scientists managed to track some down, they saw that females are hanging out in huge groups with no males allowed. And, though no one knows why, the females prefer habitat that’s higher and steeper than where the boys play.

Currently rebounding from poaching, wild yaks—which, male and female, look a bit like bison wearing skirts—are still endangered. Yet without knowing much about where or how yaks live, conservationists can’t be sure of the best ways to protect them. So University of Montana biologist Joel Berger and his colleagues traveled to Tibet in late 2012 and went looking for yaks. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: boys and girls, earth, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Ecology

Picky Eaters Are Less Likely to Be Eaten

By Elizabeth Preston | June 17, 2014 10:08 am


Subsisting on only one food is a poor survival strategy for humans, but a great one for caterpillars. Caterpillar species with very specialized diets are less likely to be plucked from their leaves by hungry birds, scientists have discovered. The less picky eaters are more apt to die (even if their moms praise them in the meantime). The finding is important not just for bugs and birds, but even for the health of the trees they inhabit.

Wesleyan University biologist Michael Singer and his colleagues tested a hypothesis that’s been around for a while: that among insects, more selective eaters are safer. Since these bugs spend all their time on one or a few host plants, the reasoning goes, they may be better adapted to hide on those plants. Insects that wander between many different plant species—with different colors and textures of leaves and branches—may be easier for predators to spot.

The researchers tested this by creating an experiment in the wild. In the forests of central Connecticut, they tied mesh bags around tree branches or small saplings. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: birds, bugs, evolution, nutrition, top posts

Fembot Flies Reveal What Males Find Attractive

By Elizabeth Preston | June 13, 2014 10:54 am


A word of advice to female fruit flies looking for a mate: it’s not hard to catch the eye of a male Drosophila. He’ll chase after almost anything that moves. Really—including a metal cube dabbed with pheromones. That may be embarrassing for the male, but it also shows scientists how a tiny-brained animal weighs information when making decisions.

“We call the robot ‘Flyatar,’” says University of Washington graduate student Sweta Agrawal, in reference to the movie Avatar. “It’s a device that allows us to essentially ‘become a fly’ so we can interact with other flies and understand what they’re doing.” Read More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


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.

See More

@Inkfish on Twitter

Collapse bottom bar

Login to your Account

E-mail address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »