Polar Bears Leave Messages in Their Footprints

By Elizabeth Preston | January 21, 2015 9:40 am


If a polar bear tells you to talk to the hand, don’t be offended. The animals seem to communicate with each other through scent trails left by their paws. Their tracks tell a story to the other bears roaming their habitat, helping potential mates to find each other—as long as there’s habitat left, anyway.

As they crisscross the snowy Arctic, polar bears are usually alone. In other solitary bear species, animals leave messages for each other by rubbing their bodies or urine onto trees or rocks, for example. These objects can become like bulletin boards for bear society. But the icy home of polar bears doesn’t include many vertical objects to rub up on.

In the past, people have noticed that polar bears sometimes sniff the footprints of other bears. Could there be chemical information hidden in the giants’ tracks?

Read More

Robot Learns to Cook from YouTube Videos

By Elizabeth Preston | January 16, 2015 8:22 am


How’s this for a dystopian future: You finally receive your personal robot assistant, delivered to your door by Amazon drone. You unpack the shiny new machine, dust off the Styrofoam peanuts, and charge up the batteries. Then you switch it on and lead it to the kitchen so it can cook you dinner. The robot points its camera at you, waiting. Suddenly you realize in horror that your assistant doesn’t know how to cook, either—you’re supposed to teach it.

To prevent this nightmare dinnertime scenario, computer scientists are working on a robot that can teach itself to cook. It learns by watching YouTube videos.

This is much harder for a robot than it is for you, no matter how inept a cook you are. Imagine a mind that’s stumped by CAPTCHAs (“Letters with a squiggle through them? I’m out!”) trying to follow a video host who’s chatting and chopping at the same time. Read More

Bees Drink with Expandable Mop Tongues

By Elizabeth Preston | January 13, 2015 10:30 am


A perennially fascinating question to scientists is how animals get liquids into their faces without cups, straws or hands. In recent years they’ve cracked the puzzle in dogs and cats, two creatures that often do their noisy drinking near us. Bees, too, sip nectar in plain sight of humans. But their methods are more subtle and mysterious.

Shaoze Yan, a mechanical engineering professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, and his colleagues took a very close look at Italian honeybees to see how they drink nectar. The researchers combined high-speed photography with images from a scanning electron microscope, which revealed the bees’ intricately built mouthparts. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bees, cats and dogs, physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Physics

Memo to Carmakers: This Fish Is a Bad Model

By Elizabeth Preston | January 9, 2015 9:09 am


In 2005, Mercedes-Benz revealed a concept car with a strange shape. Called the Bionic, the cartoonishly snub-nosed vehicle was modeled after Ostracion cubicus, the yellow boxfish. Car manufacturers aren’t the only ones to take inspiration from this weird coral dweller. But researchers now say engineers who mimicked the boxfish might have been misled.

Shaping the car like a boxfish was supposed to make it aerodynamic. And the fish’s allegedly low drag underwater wasn’t its only interesting feature. Researchers in the last decade claimed that the boxfish is also unusually stable. Because of how water flows over its body and creates vortices, they said, small deviations from its course will self-correct. Engineers who modeled a robot after the boxfish cited this stability as a reason.

In their lives among the corals, boxfish don’t need to be especially fast. Read More

Stiff Masks Block Emotional Memories

By Elizabeth Preston | January 6, 2015 9:05 am


A good poker face may help you win a Hold ‘Em tournament, but it won’t do your memory any favors. Our faces naturally flinch into emotional expressions that match what we’re seeing or hearing. These quick expressions, in addition to giving away our pocket aces, seem to help us recall things later. Using stiff cosmetic masks, scientists showed that it also works the other way: if we can’t move our faces, emotional memories are harder to hang onto.

We may not realize when our facial muscles are mimicking the emotions around us. To stop it from happening, scientists have tried making people hold a pen between their teeth, for example. Forced into a constant grimace this way, subjects had a harder time recognizing emotional words and facial expressions. In other research, people read emotionally negative sentences more slowly after getting a Botox injection in their frown lines.

At SISSA, a research institution in Trieste, Italy, graduate student Jenny-Charlotte Baumeister took facial freezing a step further. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: brains, language, top posts, Uncategorized

Raindrops Are like Tiny Asteroid Strikes

By Elizabeth Preston | January 2, 2015 9:32 am


Rainshowers are a lot more dramatic if you imagine every drop is a tiny asteroid imperiling miniature dinosaurs or sending little astronaut Ben Afflecks into space. It turns out your fantasy wouldn’t be that far off, aside from that last part. Researchers have found startling similarities between asteroid craters and the fleeting indentations left by raindrops on sand.

At the University of Minnesota, physicist Xiang Cheng and three undergraduate students scrutinized what happens when a drop of water hits a granular surface. Because of all the variables in this kind of collision—the viscosity of the liquid, how much the drop squishes when it hits the surface, how the liquid and the grains interact—the researchers call it “notoriously complicated.”

Cheng and his students used high-speed photography and laser measurements to observe falling water drops and the miniature craters they made. Read More

Time in the Hive Makes Bees Exhausted

By Elizabeth Preston | December 30, 2014 10:33 am


Facing a whole hive of bees at once can be overwhelming—even for a bee. Young honeybees sleep more after spending time in the hive than after being by themselves. They need the extra nap time, it seems, to build and maintain their learning brains.

The first surprising thing about this might be that insects sleep at all. “Since around the 1980s there is good evidence that insects show…characteristics of sleep,” says Guy Bloch, who studies bee behavior at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Yes, their brains are tiny and organized differently from ours. But they rest in a similar way. And just as sleeping helps us sort through the new things we’ve learned each day, there’s evidence that sleep in bees and fruit flies is also tied up with memory and learning, Bloch says.

When a young worker honeybee emerges into the hive, she’s thrust into a social life with countless rules to learn. She finds herself surrounded by waving antennae, fuzzy bodies squeezing past each other, and a flurry of message-bearing chemicals. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bees, brains, education, top posts

Quiz: Do You Always Remember a (Bear) Face?

By Elizabeth Preston | December 23, 2014 8:53 am

You know how embarrassing it is to introduce yourself to someone at a party, and realize too late that you’ve already met? Just imagine if that person was a bear.

To prevent moments like this, San Diego Zoo conservation researcher Russell Van Horn and his colleagues asked people to try identifying bears by their faces. Actually, their motivation had nothing to do with awkward party moments. It had more to do with citizen science. Can volunteers be trusted to look at photos from a camera trap, say, and report how many different animals have walked past? What about scientists? If someone thinks she’s seen ten different animals when she’s only seen five, the population count for an area could end up artificially high. What looks like a healthy population could really be a lonely few animals who are hard to recognize in different lighting.

The researchers gathered photos of Andean bears (Tremarctos ornatus, also called spectacled bears) from zoos and research sites around the world. Individuals of this species have markings on their faces that make this task a little easier than it might be otherwise. The pictures showed bears of known identity and age at different times. Sometimes the pictures were at bad angles or hard to make out, as they would be in research.

In an online test, 120 participants viewed pairs of photos and answered one question: Is this the same animal? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: aging, quiz, top posts, Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: Animals, Ecology

Dogs Not Great at Math (Wolves Are Better)

By Elizabeth Preston | December 19, 2014 9:40 am


Even a brilliant dog may not be able to count as high as the number of feet she has. In a cheese cube counting challenge, dogs struggled to prove they have any number sense at all. Embarrassingly for the dogs, some wolves took the exact same test and passed it. This may be a hint about what dogs lost when they moved to a cushy life of domestication.

At the Wolf Science Center in Austria, Friederike Range and her colleagues raise both wolves and dogs by hand, then train them to take part in cognition research projects. Their interest in canine counting skill isn’t totally trivial. In nature, a little bit of number sense might help animals choose the best food source or hunting spot. It also helps to know whether another pack of animals is bigger than yours before getting in a fight.

If dogs have any grasp of numbers, they should be able to judge two sets of food items—say, three versus four Milk-Bones—and pick the bigger snack.  Read More

Spying on Animals’ Movements to Learn How They’re Feeling

By Elizabeth Preston | December 16, 2014 10:38 am


Rory Wilson recalls some nervous waterbirds.

“I’ve seen pelicans in Galapagos, in the port,” the Swansea University biologist says. One set of birds was standing by the fish-gutting area and waiting for scraps, while another group stood out of the fray in some nearby bushes. Although both sets of pelicans acted the same, a closer look at the birds waiting for fish scraps revealed that they were quaking slightly. The tips of their wings trembled.

Wilson thinks the tremor in the pelicans’ wings revealed their stress in that moment. He also believes that studying similarly small movements in all kinds of animals could give scientists new insights into their lives and health.

To show how this might work, Wilson and his colleagues put pocket-sized accelerometers on three very different animals: humans, elephants, and cockroaches. It’s popular for scientists to track animals’ large-scale movements—GPS devices and motion sensors have followed the migrations of birds and giant crabs and found the ideal fatness for elephant seals, for example. But Wilson wasn’t interested in where animals were going. Instead, he wanted to know how their small-scale movements revealed their emotions or other internal states.

For starters, the researchers compared two groups of humans. One group had used ecstasy (MDMA) in the past; the other had never taken the drug. 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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