Rafting Ants Have Designated Stations

By Elizabeth Preston | April 27, 2016 1:23 pm


Sometimes at the climax of a Star Trek episode, the captain would yell out “Battle stations!” and send the crew scurrying frantically through the corridors. It wasn’t really clear what those battle stations were. Presumably, crew members headed to posts they’d been previously assigned, and this let the whole ship react to the crisis efficiently.

Certain ants respond to a crisis by binding their bodies together into floating rafts. And like the Star Trek crew, they seem to have designated posts.

Formica selysi ants live in central and southern Europe. Their preferred homes are along rivers, so the ants need to be prepared for floods—and they are. When water rises around them, the ants cling together to make a raft. They load the queen at the raft’s center. Baby ants, being especially buoyant, become flotation devices: the other ants pack the larvae and pupae at the bottom of the raft. (Don’t worry. Somehow, this doesn’t kill them.) Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ants, bugs, networks, physics, top posts

Echidnas Are Too Cool to Be Bothered by Fires

By Elizabeth Preston | April 20, 2016 9:58 pm


If you can’t stand the heat, you’re not an echidna, as the saying (almost) goes. These egg-laying mammals are unusual for several reasons. One of those reasons, it turns out, is that their ability to lower their body temperatures makes them largely indifferent to their homes burning down around them.

The short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus, is one of four living species of echidna. Like the platypus, echidnas are Australian mammals that lay eggs instead of bearing live young. They do feed their young milk, in the mammalian tradition, though it oozes straight out of their nipple-less skin. Unlike a platypus, a short-beaked echidna doesn’t have a duckbill or swim in streams. But it makes up for those deficits with spines and a long, bendy tongue built for catching bugs.

T. aculeatus also has the power to dramatically reduce its body temperature. Read More

Hunting Bats Plan Two Bugs Ahead

By Elizabeth Preston | April 13, 2016 10:30 am


A flying insect that’s suddenly swallowed by a bat probably doesn’t have a lot of time to reflect on its fate. If it did, though, it might wonder how on Earth the swooping mammal managed to grab it with so little warning. The answer is that bats don’t hunt just one bug at a time. While scanning the air with echoes, they manage to plan two victims ahead.

Bats aren’t blind, despite what you may have read on Twitter. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Senses

Why Old Dads Are Bad for Albatrosses

By Elizabeth Preston | April 8, 2016 11:00 am


If birds fretted about their biological clocks like humans do, it would be the dads of some species doing the worrying, not the moms. When male albatrosses have chicks later in life, those chicks grow up to fare worse. It’s because albatrosses of both sexes are such good parents to begin with.

Wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) share parenting duties “quite equitably,” explains Rémi Fay, a graduate student in biology at France’s CNRS. The giant seabirds mate for life. Every other year, couples lay a single egg and incubate it. After a chick hatches, the mom and dad share responsibility for keeping it alive.

But males are much bigger and heavier, Fay says, which means the parents’ contributions aren’t exactly the same. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: aging, birds, clocks, parenting, the ocean, top posts

Words We Say to Dogs (and Other Things Scientists Learned Watching People Play with Pets)

By Elizabeth Preston | April 6, 2016 11:03 am


“Who wants to generate some DATA??” are probably not words you’ve ever said while taking your dog’s leash and tennis ball from the closet. But thanks to videos of people playing with their dogs, scientists now know what words you are likely to use. They also discovered how women’s tussling and tug-of-war are different from men’s—and what the professionals do better.

The scientists are Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht of Barnard College’s Dog Cognition Lab. They asked members of the public to send them videos of playtime with their dogs. The researchers ended up with 187 videos from dog owners in 19 different countries. Read More

What’s In a Snout?

By Elizabeth Preston | April 1, 2016 10:26 am


It may sound superficial, but you can judge a lot about an animal from its schnoz. Plant-eaters have evolved the perfect snout shapes to nibble, chomp, or tear up the foods they love. And by decoding those shapes, scientists hope they can learn more about plant-eaters that are more mysterious—namely, dinosaurs. Read More

These Birds Learn to Recognize Humans They Hate

By Elizabeth Preston | March 29, 2016 11:38 am

skua attack

Antarctic seabirds called skuas are so clever that they can recognize individual humans after seeing them only a few times. Some Korean researchers discovered this by messing with the birds’ nests and then waiting to get attacked. They’re either very brave or have never watched The Birds.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: birds, brains, top posts, whether to panic

Prozac in the Water Makes Fighting Fish More Mellow

By Elizabeth Preston | March 23, 2016 2:00 pm


Had Teresa Dzieweczynski chosen to publish her recent findings as an updated children’s classic, rather than as a research paper, she could have titled it If You Give a Fish an Antidepressant. The book would probably be less charming than If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. But it would also be, unfortunately, more realistic. Our pharmaceuticals are steadily trickling into the homes of fish and other animals. And—as the hero of the original book could have told us, his house in disarray after fulfilling the whims of a hungry rodent—there are consequences.

Dzieweczynski, a psychologist at the University of New England, looked at just one of the drugs that’s crept into American waterways: fluoxetine, better known as Prozac. Read More

Even Harmless Snakes Strike at Deadly Speed

By Elizabeth Preston | March 18, 2016 10:34 am

Texas Rat Snake 2239a

Just because a snake can’t kill you doesn’t mean it’s slow on the draw. New research shows that harmless snakes strike just as quickly as venomous vipers do. The snakes hurl themselves at their targets so quickly, in fact, that a lesser animal would black out from the acceleration.

Vipers have long been the presumed titleholders for strike speed, explains David Penning, a graduate student in biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. These snakes strike to kill, plunging their venom-injecting fangs into a rat or lizard before it can react. But no one has thoroughly tested the assumption that vipers are the fastest, Penning says. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Physics

Birds Give Up Colorful Feathers for Carefree Island Lifestyle

By Elizabeth Preston | March 15, 2016 2:49 pm

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 10.40.12 PM

Island living may call to mind vivid flowering vines and colorful plumage. But in reality, birds on islands around the world have evolved less-colorful feathers than their mainland relatives. Their drab, simple patterns are only the latest evidence that island evolution is kind of weird.

Claire Doutrelant, an ecologist at France’s Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, and her coauthors studied 116 pairs of bird species, or 232 species in all. Each pair included an island bird and its closest relative that lives on the mainland and breeds at a similar latitude. For example, one pair was made up of the Hawaiian nene and the Canada goose. 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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