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

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

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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



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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