When Does an Android Become a Creepazoid?

By Elizabeth Preston | November 6, 2015 11:07 am

uncanny valley

The uncanny valley is a place no one wants to be. Somewhere between machine and human, the theory goes, robots take a dive into creepiness. But roboticists aren’t sure the valley really exists. Now, researchers in California say they have new evidence for this icky zone, and they can even draw a map of it.

Robotics professor Masahiro Mori first proposed the uncanny valley in 1970. The idea feels right—certainly some robots are charming and others, especially androids not quite succeeding at looking human, are a little stomach turning. (An android is a robot designed like a person.) But studies trying to pinpoint this valley have had mixed results. A 2015 review concluded that evidence for the uncanny valley is, at best, ambiguous.

Maya Mathur, a biostatistician at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and David Reichling, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, thought they could do better. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Emotions, Psychology, Robots

Mighty Mouse Lemurs Have Super Arm Strength

By Elizabeth Preston | November 4, 2015 6:27 am


The world’s smallest primate is not an intimidating animal. It has outsize eyes, nibbles on fruit and insects, and would fit in your breast pocket. Yet at least one species has a super-strong grip, which might help humans understand how our own hands evolved.

Among many species of mouse lemur, the largest—not that that’s much of a distinction—is Microcebus murinus, the gray mouse lemur. Like all other lemurs, M. murinus lives wild only in Madagascar. But a captive population lives at the French research institution UMR7179 CNRS/MNHN, where graduate student Pauline Thomas and her colleagues decided to measure the strength of the petite animals’ arms.

Having a strong grip is crucial for an animal like a lemur that lives in the trees. Some lemurs are acrobats that swing and leap between branches; other species, like mouse lemurs, do more subdued clinging. But all of them would be in trouble if they lost a handhold in a high branch. And since the earliest primates—our ancestors as well as the lemurs’—are thought to have lived in trees too, their need to hang on tight may have influenced what our hands look like today.

The researchers studied 62 captive gray mouse lemurs, both males and females. They measured “pull strength,” or how well the animals can hang on to something. As has been done with other species, the researchers studied this by simply letting the lemurs latch on somewhere and then gently pulling them free.

In this case, the lemurs gripped a little iron bar. The bar was mounted to a force plate, which measured how much force the lemurs were exerting. Then a researcher tugged the animals horizontally away from the bar. The experiment was repeated multiple times with each animal to make sure the tiny athletes performed consistently.

Comparing the results to the lemurs’ body measurements, the researchers found that heavier individuals could pull more strongly. Longer forearm bones also made for stronger lemurs. As the animals got older, their grips weakened. And females with more young were stronger, probably because their bodies had been in better condition to begin with. On average, the mouse lemurs could pull over 10 times their own body weight.

This was an impressive performance, compared to some other animals whose pull strength scientists have tested. Mice can pull less than a quarter of their body weight, and rats can pull just 7 percent.

Gripping tree branches and grasping bugs to eat aren’t the only tasks that require a mouse lemur’s hand strength. Mouse lemurs are promiscuous, and during mating the males have to cling to the slightly larger females. Scientists don’t know yet how the gray mouse lemur’s grip strength compares to other primates, though. The diminutive lemurs might only be average.

But if senior author Anthony Herrel had to guess, he thinks mouse lemurs are likely extraordinary.

Mouse lemurs live on especially narrow branches, Herrel explains. “To walk on narrow branches you need to be able to grip really well, as otherwise you will topple sideways.” To get some data, Herrel hopes to compare M. murinus to other lemur species with different lifestyles.

Herrel says the earliest primates may have been adapted for hanging on to narrow branches, just like the mouse lemur does. So further research might provide hints about how all primate hands evolved, as well as whether mouse lemurs are really strength champions. “Our data suggest that, at least, they are quite strong,” he says.

Image: courtesy of Pauline Thomas.

Thomas, P., Pouydebat, E., Brazidec, M., Aujard, F., & Herrel, A. (2015). Determinants of pull strength in captive grey mouse lemurs Journal of Zoology DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12292

Help do some science! Is it your first time visiting Inkfish? Do you read every post? Either way, you can be part of a scientific study without leaving your chair or sniffing a poop stick. I’ve teamed up with researcher Paige Brown Jarreau to create a survey of Inkfish readers. By participating, you’ll be helping me improve Inkfish and contributing Paige’s research on blog readership. You will also get FREE science art from Paige’s Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt and other perks. It should take 10–15 minutes to complete the survey, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/mysciblogreaders. Thank you!!

Who Needs Inner Glow? Female Beetles Shine Bright to Attract Mates

By Elizabeth Preston | October 30, 2015 10:41 am


Don’t let the makeup companies find out. Lady glow-worms are setting an unattainable beauty standard by using bright light to show males how fertile they are. It’s a rare (in the animal world) example of females decorating themselves while their mates choose between them.

The European glow-worm, or Lampyris noctiluca, is a member of the firefly family in which the females do most of the glowing. Males are ordinary-looking beetles with brown wings. Females are much larger and don’t have wings at all—they look more like overgrown larvae. In their adult stage, glow-worms usually live for less than two weeks. They don’t even eat, focusing all their energy on finding a mate. Read More

Mysterious Whales Seen Alive for the First Time

By Elizabeth Preston | October 27, 2015 10:03 pm


Never heard of an Omura’s whale? There’s a good reason. Until recently, no one had laid eyes on one in the wild.

Before 2003, the Omura’s whale was thought to be simply a dwarf version of another type of whale. Then Japanese scientists studying the whale’s DNA and bodily characteristics decided it ought to be its own species, and named it after the late cetologist Hideo Omura. Still, all they had to work with were carcasses caught by whalers or washed up on the beach. They gleaned what information they could from the animals’ ear wax and stomach contents, but no one had ever seen Balaenoptera omurai swimming or eating or interacting. Pretty much all scientists knew was that it lived in the western Pacific.

Imagine the surprise, then, of researchers in a boat in the Indian Ocean when they spied some Omura’s whales in the distance. During a survey of marine mammals off Madagascar’s coast, New England Aquarium scientist Salvatore Cerchio and his colleagues saw whales with markings that seemed to match B. omurai. They used biopsy darts to snag tissue samples from 18 of the whales as they swam by. DNA analysis confirmed it: the animals were the elusive Omura’s whales.

Over the next few years, the scientists returned and recorded every detail they could about this population. Since they were the first humans to observe Omura’s whales in nature, everything they learned about the animals was new: Read More

Finding the Highways for Migrating Birds

By Elizabeth Preston | October 23, 2015 11:53 am

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 8.07.15 AM

When birds set out for a long journey, they don’t need roads and they certainly don’t need road maps. They learn the route from others or intuit it from their DNA, an urge to point their bodies one way at a certain time of year and stop flying a few thousand miles later. To understand these journeys better, researchers mapped the most efficient routes through the world’s winds. The highways that emerged weren’t the shortest paths—but they did strikingly match the behavior of real bird species.

At the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, Bart Kranstauber and his colleagues wondered whether migration routes have evolved to fit wind patterns. If certain routes take more energy to fly, shouldn’t birds be less likely to survive those journeys? And if wind patterns are consistent from year to year, won’t species evolve to follow the easier migratory paths?

The scientists gathered 21 years’ worth of global wind data. Read More

Teaching Robots Not to Faceplant

By Elizabeth Preston | October 20, 2015 2:10 pm

robots falling

Robots may not feel pain or embarrassment, but they still have good reasons to avoid a wipeout. Their parts are expensive, for one thing, and they’re lousy at healing their own scrapes. And robots that walk around on two legs are bound to take some spectacular spills. That’s why researchers are working on a way to teach robots to fall a little more gracefully.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, Sehoon Ha and Karen Liu created an algorithm that plans the safest way for a robot to fall. Pitching directly onto your face, whether you’re a bot or not, isn’t ideal. Hitting the ground in multiple smaller impacts lets you get rid of your momentum with less damage to your body. When humans trip on an uneven sidewalk, say, we do this instinctively by putting out our arms to break our fall. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: math, physics, robots, screwups, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Math, Physics, Robots

The Scariest Animals, by the Numbers

By Elizabeth Preston | October 16, 2015 11:13 am


Spiders are less scary than snakes, but scarier than clowns. That’s one of the findings of a survey of American fears published this week. The survey creators focused on the things Americans find most frightening: government corruption, cyber-terrorism, and tracking of their personal data, for example. But America’s creepy-crawlies have surely been waiting, in their drains and dark corners, to find out how they ranked.

Chapman University carried out the second annual Survey of American Fears, asking about 1,500 adults across the country how they felt about threats ranging from natural disasters to the paranormal. Read More

Why More Firstborn Kids Need Glasses

By Elizabeth Preston | October 14, 2015 10:29 am


It’s bad enough for the first kid when a new baby shows up to steal your thunder. But the injustice is compounded when you have to start wearing glasses while your little sibling stays as cute and non-four-eyed as ever. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone: firstborn kids are more likely to be nearsighted. Part of the reason might be that they get more education.

A study in the United Kingdom and Israel found that myopia—that’s nearsightedness, if you’re one of those lucky people who hasn’t spent much time at the optometrist’s office—is about 10% more common in firstborn children. But that study only looked at subjects between 15 and 22 years old. Is this a new issue, or have older siblings always gotten the short end of the eyesight stick? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: education, medicine, parenting, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Personal health, Senses

How Cuttlefish Stay Camouflaged On the Go

By Elizabeth Preston | October 6, 2015 9:11 am


Most camouflaged creatures try to hold still so they won’t give away their ruse. But cuttlefish aren’t most creatures. These masters of camouflage can change color to seamlessly match their background, and they can keep swimming while they do it.

“Cuttlefish are one of nature’s fastest dynamic camouflagers,” says Noam Josef, a graduate student at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. The cephalopods can change color in just one tenth of a second. They can also create different patterns and textures on their skin. Despite being colorblind, they can disguise themselves as rocks, other fish, or smudges on a sandy seafloor. (Watch a cuttlefish gamely match its skin to different backgrounds in this video.)

Josef wanted to know more about how cuttlefish change colors while they’re in motion. Read More

Poop on a Stick Tests Penguins’ Sense of Smell

By Elizabeth Preston | October 2, 2015 11:35 am

penguin poop stick

Who doesn’t enjoy waking to a pleasant smell wafting past? Unfortunately for them, the penguins in a recent study woke up not to pancakes frying nearby, but to less appetizing aromas—for example, feces on a stick. But scientists promise the experiment taught them valuable lessons about a penguin’s capabilities. Besides, they let the birds go right back to sleep. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: birds, navigation, poo, smell, sound, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Senses


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


Discover's Newsletter

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

Collapse bottom bar