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

10 Ways This Giant Millipede Is Ballin’

By Elizabeth Preston | June 10, 2014 10:19 am

adorbs millipede

1. Literally. Like pill bugs, Madagascar’s giant pill-millipedes protect themselves by rolling into a ball. The larger species may end up in a package the size of a tennis ball. But millipedes in the genus Sphaeromimus are a more manageable size, only up to an inch or two long.

2. It sings. Sphaeromimus millipedes have ridged music-making organs on their back ends. The male’s is called a “harp,” and the female’s is a “washboard.”

“Both sexes have a knob on the backside of the last leg pair which they rub across the ribs to produce sounds, like the [pick] of a guitar,” says Thomas Wesener, a curator at the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. He recently discovered seven new species of Sphaeromimus. Read More

Most Baby Macaroni Penguins Get Eaten

By Elizabeth Preston | June 6, 2014 9:34 am

macaroni penguin

Whoever named the macaroni penguin was not thinking of dinner, but the name is unfortunately apt. A shocking number of these birds get gobbled up by other large seabirds while they’re young, a new study found. Researchers are trying to fit this puzzle piece in with high predator numbers, rising ocean temperatures, and vanishing populations to see the whole picture of the macaroni penguin’s future.

Macaronis (Eudyptes chrysolophus), like other penguins, live in the southernmost parts of the planet. They’re not as much of a presence as they once were, though. A survey on South Georgia (a chilly, mostly empty island in the South Atlantic) found that breeding pairs of macaroni penguins dropped by more than 80% between the 1970s and early 2000s.

To find out where the birds are going, scientists tagged more than 2,000 penguins on South Georgia with transponders under their skin. “The technology is very similar to the microchips pet owners use to mark their cats and dogs,” says Catharine Horswill, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow and researcher with the British Antarctic Survey. Read More

Scientist Names Blind Fish with Neck Anus after His Favorite Team

By Elizabeth Preston | June 3, 2014 8:15 am

hoosier cavefishIn what might be considered a mixed message outside of the ichthyology world, scientists have named a new species of cavefish after the Indiana University Hoosiers. It’s blind, has its anus behind its head, and distinguishes itself from its nearest relative by being a little fatter. But its discovery might help keep the world’s other ugly cave dwellers alive, even those not named for sports teams.

Cavefish in the family Amblyopsidae live in dark corners of the eastern United States. There are about eight species, though it can be hard to tell them apart just by looking. Features that would normally be helpful are missing: they often have no eyes and no color to their bodies.

The genes of these unforthcoming fish, though, may tell stories that their bodies can’t. Read More

Wasps Choose the Sex of Their Young—but Climate Can Foil Them

By Elizabeth Preston | May 30, 2014 9:00 am


It’s a good thing human sex isn’t determined the same way a parasitoid wasp’s is, because “sugar and spice and everything nice” is much easier to rhyme than “sperm and moderate temperatures.” But that’s what little wasp girls are made of. A mother wasp can choose the sex of each egg she lays by deciding whether or not to fertilize it. Depending on the temperature of her environment, though, she may not get her way.

Whether you are biologically male or female isn’t really determined by spices, snips or snails, of course, but by the genes you receive from your parents. Outside of the mammal world, things get more interesting. In reptiles such as turtles or alligators, the sex of a developing egg may depend on the temperature of its nest. In certain insects, every fertilized egg becomes a female, while every unfertilized egg becomes a male (who has half the number of chromosomes as his sisters).*

This system of fertilized females and DNA-poor males shows up in bees, ants, and wasps, among other insects. But temperature could still matter—maybe one type of embryo is less likely to survive a cold snap, for example. Joffrey Moiroux, a biologist at the University of Montreal, wanted to tease apart these two different means of sex determination in a wasp species. It would require him scrutinizing every wiggle of a female wasp’s abdomen as she laid her eggs. 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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