Barnacles Plus Plastic Trash Make Rafts for Ocean Animals

By Elizabeth Preston | February 22, 2016 1:39 pm

Plastics at SEA_Marina (1875)aIf you wanted to travel from Japan to California, you could do worse than to hitch a ride on a barnacle-covered buoy. Or maybe a barnacle-covered refrigerator or chunk of foam. Barnacles are turning all kinds of ocean trash into cozy habitats for animals at sea. They might even help some of those animals reach distant shores and become dangerous invasive species.

Flora and fauna have always sailed the sea on rafts such as pieces of wood or pumice, or matted plants. Without flotation devices, some species could never have reached places like the Hawaiian islands. But natural rafts have a limited lifespan before they biodegrade. Plastic objects made by humans, on the other hand, can survive in the ocean for ages. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Ecology, Ocean, Pollution

Octopus Colors Predict the Winners of Fights

By Elizabeth Preston | February 17, 2016 10:09 am

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 9.36.45 AM

There’s not much of a betting market for octopus fights. But if you wanted to wager on the outcome of a face-off between octopuses, you could get some insider information by looking at their colors.

Octopuses, like their relatives the squid and cuttlefish, are famously adept at changing the colors and patterns on their skin. Most of the time, researchers have interpreted octopus color-shifting as a way to hide, says Alaska Pacific University marine biologist David Scheel. By adjusting their colors to their backgrounds, octopuses can stay camouflaged and live to jet another day.

Yet by poring over 53 hours of video footage of octopuses off the coast of Australia, Scheel and his colleagues found something quite different. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: inkfish, the ocean, top posts

Does 3D Make You Queasy? You Might Have Superior Vision

By Elizabeth Preston | February 10, 2016 8:35 am


Between the rise of 3D movies and virtual reality, more and more people are getting a chance to don goofy glasses or headsets and experience media in three dimensions. And many of those people are discovering something about themselves: 3D makes them ill. Sitting in the theater or on their own couch, they get a sensation like motion sickness. They might feel nausea, dizziness, or disorientation.

A new study suggests that these symptoms aren’t weakness on the part of the viewer. People who get “simulator sickness” may simply have better 3D motion perception. Read More

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better for Hurdling Obstacles

By Elizabeth Preston | February 5, 2016 2:00 pm

scrub lizard

Although lizards mostly scurry on all fours, certain species can run on two legs when the mood strikes. What’s the benefit to this human-like running style? For one thing, it seems to let lizards get over obstacles without slowing down. They just have to make sure not to tip over.

Georgia Southern University biologist Lance McBrayer and graduate student Seth Parker studied running in a handsome little reptile called Sceloporus woodi, or the Florida scrub lizard. McBrayer says there’s been a lot of research into lizard species that always run on two feet. But lizards that switch between a two- and four-legged stance while running are more mysterious. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: physics, top posts, walking, weird animals
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Physics

How Not to Get Killed by a Cow

By Elizabeth Preston | February 2, 2016 4:20 pm


Between 1993 and 2015, cattle killed 13 people who were out for walks in the United Kingdom. Dozens more walkers received broken bones or other injuries from the animals.

Murderous cattle are an understudied phenomenon, say veterinarian Angharad Fraser-Williams and other researchers at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. So they scoured news articles and scientific literature to learn about cattle attacks over two decades. They turned up some advice for people wishing to avoid a fight with a bovine. First: don’t try to save your dog. Read More

Lizards Overcome Lack of Mirrors to Find Rocks That Match Their Colors

By Elizabeth Preston | January 29, 2016 11:29 am

lizard on rock

Think about the last time you stood squinting in front of a full-length mirror, trying to decide whether the colors in your outfit went together. Now imagine you’re a reptile, and you wouldn’t even understand a mirror if you saw one, but somehow you need to find a rock that matches your skin color. Otherwise you might get eaten by a bird today. Oh, and the skin color you need to match is on your back.

Certain lizards in Greece manage to pull this off every day, though how they do it is a mystery. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Evolution, Physics

Tardigrades Are One Giant Head

By Elizabeth Preston | January 26, 2016 5:38 pm


No one would argue that tardigrades got stiffed in the weirdness department. These teensy animals, also called water bears, look roly-poly under a microscope. Less than a millimeter long, they can survive extremes of heat, cold, pressure, and radiation that are deadly to most other lifeforms. Under duress, a tardigrade may curl itself into a dried-up ball called a tun, then stay in a state of suspended animation for years before returning to life. Now, researchers poring over the animal’s genes have found another oddity. The tardigrade, they say, is essentially one giant head.

Frank Smith, who’s a postdoc in Bob Goldstein’s lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and their colleagues studied the evolution of tardigrades by looking at their genes. Specifically, they looked at bits of DNA called “Hox genes.” These are master controllers that organize an animal’s body. During development, Hox genes make sure all the parts end up where they’re supposed to be. Mutations in Hox genes can cause unsettling problems like, say, legs growing out of the head. Read More

Anxious People Are More Likely to Walk Left When Blindfolded

By Elizabeth Preston | January 22, 2016 2:08 pm


Could you walk in a perfectly straight line while blindfolded? It’s lucky this skill isn’t demanded often, because people aren’t very good at it. Most veer a little to one side. And the direction you err in may be tied to your personality. People with more anxious personalities, for example, tend to drift left. The insight could help scientists learn where these personality traits reside in the brain. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Psychology

What Is Citizen Science Good For? Birds, Butterflies, Big Data

By Elizabeth Preston | January 19, 2016 11:20 am


No matter how unhip you feel wearing waders or hauling a butterfly net, citizen science is cool. That’s obvious from the boom in online projects that let you count penguins, hunt planets, or identify animals in the Serengeti, as well as the scientific papers using these data. Now researchers in Sweden have looked into the science of citizen science itself. How much of this volunteer research is really happening, they asked—and what is it producing? Read More

We Don’t Trust People Who Withhold Personal Information

By Elizabeth Preston | January 12, 2016 10:39 pm


You’re creating a profile for an online dating site when you come to a question you’re not sure you want to answer—say, “Do you smoke?” You might be more comfortable leaving it blank than sharing the truth with all your potential dates. But a series of experiments says that we tend to judge people harshly when they withhold personal information. Even someone who shares an unpleasant truth is more appealing, trustworthy, and hirable than someone who’d rather not say.

Harvard Business School professor Leslie John and her colleagues designed the study to find out whether nondisclosure has costs. When people comfortably share so many personal details on social media, are non-sharers deemed less trustworthy? (Being Bostonians, the authors cite Tom Brady as an example—specifically, certain “insinuations” about the quarterback when he refused to hand over his email and phone records during last year’s Deflategate scandal.) Read More



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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