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

Female Finches Get Stressed Just Hearing the Voice of a Stressed-Out Mate

By Elizabeth Preston | January 5, 2016 12:50 pm


Humans aren’t the only animals who know when something’s the matter. The chirps of a stressed-out zebra finch may make his mate feel stressed too—even when she can’t see him. It’s a hint that a kind of empathy exists in birds.

Zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) mate for life. They work together to find food, guard their nests, and raise their young. When they’re apart, they call to each other to check in.

Emilie Perez, a researcher at the University of Saint-Etienne in France, and her colleagues found in 2012 that the calls of stressed-out male zebra finches sound slightly different than usual. Not unlike a frantic human whose voice creeps higher and higher, a stressed male finch calls with a higher frequency. The researchers wondered if the mate of a stressed-out male notices this difference—and if so, how does she respond? Read More

10 Animals That Support Your New Year’s Resolutions

By Elizabeth Preston | December 31, 2015 12:58 pm

Think you’ll need help following through on your New Year’s resolutions? Take some inspiration from these news-making animals of 2015. Soon you’ll be your best self…or possibly a sea monster. Either way, 2016 is sure to be great.


Get rid of unnecessary clutter Read More

Scientists Recruit Crows as Filmmakers to Study Tool Use

By Elizabeth Preston | December 28, 2015 3:30 pm

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 2.15.53 PM

New Caledonian crows are some of the world’s most famous non-human tool users. The crows employ sticks, leaves, and even bits of wire in the lab to probe holes in branches or logs, fishing out tasty bugs. But scientists are usually stuck studying these behaviors in artificial environments. To get a better perspective on how these birds make and use tools in nature, researchers in the United Kingdom tried something new: they turned wild crows into documentary filmmakers.

Jolyon Troscianko, of the University of Birmingham, and Christian Rutz, of the University of Oxford, developed tiny video cameras for spying on crows. Then they went to New Caledonia, the archipelago east of Australia where the birds (Corvus moneduloides) live.

In their forest study area, the researchers trapped 19 wild crows. Each time they trapped a bird, they held it overnight while custom-building and programming a video logger that wouldn’t weigh the bird down too much. They attached the camera to the underside of the bird’s tail, so that the lens pointed forward and up along the belly. Then they released the birds back into the forest. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: birds, top posts, Uncategorized

Unsmellable Snake Camouflages Its Scent

By Elizabeth Preston | December 21, 2015 10:43 am


If your favorite activity is lying motionless on the ground, you’d better make sure hungry animals can’t find you. Snakes and other creatures that hunt by ambush, waiting for their prey to wander past, often have impressive visual camouflage. But at least one type of viper seems to disguise itself in another way, too: its smell is undetectable to predators.

Puff adders (Bitis arietans) are big, fat vipers that move around very little while they wait for prey. They’re widespread in Africa. Despite carrying powerful venom, these sluggish snakes often become meals for other animals.

Ashadee Kay Miller, a graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, decided to investigate the smelliness of puff adders because of some strange observations her coauthor Graham Alexander had made in the wild. Alexander spent a lot of time tracking these snakes in South Africa, and noticed that other animals were often oblivious to puff adders. He saw dogs and mongooses, with their noses to the ground and actively sniffing, walk right over the snakes. These animals would have been happy to eat a puff adder if they’d found it. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: evolution, smell, top posts, Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Evolution, Senses

Road Trip with a Life-Sized Blowup Whale

By Elizabeth Preston | December 16, 2015 10:52 am

whale in gym

Cynde McInnis arrived in San Francisco for this week’s Society for Marine Mammalogy conference after traveling cross-country with an unusual companion: a 43-foot-long inflatable humpback whale.

McInnis coordinates education for Cape Ann Whale Watch in Massachusetts, which focuses on traditional flesh-and-blood whales. But on the side, she runs a company called The Whalemobile. She drives her blowup cetacean to schools and other sites and uses it to teach people about whales and the environment. The whale is modeled after a real animal she knows well—a female humpback named Nile.

Right now McInnis is halfway through a seven-week tour of the country with her family. The inflatable whale has made stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and Tennessee. After the conference, McInnis will start back across the country with her family and whale, though their plans are still open. I met up with her in San Francisco to talk about the surprises and smells of traveling with a whale. (I’ve edited our conversation.) Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Ocean, Pollution


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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